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Emergent biogeochemical risks from Arctic permafrost degradation


The Arctic cryosphere is collapsing, posing overlapping environmental risks. In particular, thawing permafrost threatens to release biological, chemical and radioactive materials that have been sequestered for tens to hundreds of thousands of years. As these constituents re-enter the environment, they have the potential to disrupt ecosystem function, reduce the populations of unique Arctic wildlife and endanger human health. Here, we review the current state of the science to identify potential hazards currently frozen in Arctic permafrost. We also consider the cascading natural and anthropogenic processes that may compound the impacts of these risks, as it is unclear whether the highly adapted Arctic ecosystems have the resilience to withstand new stresses. We conclude by recommending research priorities to address these underappreciated risks.

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Fig. 1: Hazard transport through Arctic ecosystems.
Fig. 2: Idealized permafrost ecosystem with potential hazard storage locations.
Fig. 3: Cross-section of model permafrost structure under different thaw regimes.


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A portion of this work was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (80NM0018D0004). This work is a part of both the NASA-ESA Arctic Methane and Permafrost Challenge (AMPAC) and the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE). Research on microbial liberation from frozen Arctic environments is supported by UKRI grant NE/S001034/1 to A.E.

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Miner, K.R., D’Andrilli, J., Mackelprang, R. et al. Emergent biogeochemical risks from Arctic permafrost degradation. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 809–819 (2021).

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