On the frozen edge of the Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia, in an ancient pantry harboring seeds and other stores, an Arctic ground squirrel burrowed into the dirt and buried a small, dark fruit from a flowering plant. The squirrel's prize quickly froze in the cold ground and was preserved in permafrost, waiting to grow into a fully fledged flowering plant until it was unearthed again. After 30,000 years, it finally was. Scientists in Russia have now regenerated this Pleistocene plant, transplanting it into a pot in the lab. A year later, it grew forth and bore fruit.
The specimen is distinctly different from the modern-day version of Silene stenophylla, or narrow-leafed Campion. It suggests that the permafrost is a potential new source of ancient gene pools long believed to be extinct, scientists said.
The Arctic’s permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. But as global temperatures rise, the frozen ground is melting fast and releasing greenhouse gases. Are we trapped in a deadly cycle?
One hundred thirty miles north of Nome, a small coastal village on Sarichef Island is feeling the effects of climate change. Shishmaref, Alaska, is falling into the sea. Rising temperatures are melting the permafrost, the layer of frozen ground beneath the surface. Without this firm base, waves have eroded the land on which Shishmaref’s villagers make their home. They must relocate their houses inland or start all over somewhere else.
With so much focus on sea ice and ice shelves, the role of permafrost in the global climate cycle is often not on the public's radar screen. But according to a new study published last week in the journal Bioscience, permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere contains more than two times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and rapid thawing could make it a significant contributor to global climate change.