Video | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Top of the World: Mysteries of the Melting Permafrost

Climate change is altering the landscape of the Arctic. As the permafrost melts, it is revealing well-preserved secrets about our past, as well as insights into our future. Watch this video to learn five surprising permafrost discoveries and their significance.

Video Transcript

Arctic glaciers and permafrost have been melting and retreating from their century-old positions due to climate change.

As the ice melts, it's slowly revealing secrets that had been buried for thousands of years. These things give us a look into the past, as well as a glimpse into what the future may hold.

One item found in the Russian permafrost was a 12,400-year-old puppy. Despite its age, the dog was remarkably well-preserved. Researchers say its brain was 70-80% intact. People have even suggested that tissue would allow the extinct canine to be cloned.

But what's really important about this discovery is that it could help establish when and how wolves became dogs. As of now, we don't exactly know when wolves were domesticated by humans, ultimately becoming dogs.

One thing we know for sure were not domesticated: cave lions. These two baby lions were found in the Sakha republic in Russia. Yes—lions in the Arctic! Scientists believe they could be over 300,000 years old. Whether these lions are ancestors of the ones still roaming in Africa is unknown.

A less intimidating, but equally intriguing, animal preserved in permafrost was this squirrel found in Alaska. It's believed to be 2.5 million years old! The Arctic squirrels were adept at living in their environment. They would hibernate up to 100 centimetres underground, where their body temperatures would drop to as low as -2.9 degrees Celsius. Squirrel seed caches provide clues as to what vegetation and food were like millions of years ago.

Scientists are starting to get a better idea of the prehistoric landscape of the Arctic, including how it was possible an environment like this could sustain so many different animals. With all these frozen animals being thawed out, the question naturally arises—what else might be thawing with them?

One worry is long-frozen bacteria. A century-old reindeer frozen in Siberia had thawed out during a heatwave. Turns out, it was infected with anthrax, which thawed out as well. This led to the death of one boy in the area and dozens more people were hospitalized.

This suggests other thawing animals could pose a serious hazard if not properly handled. They could even spread bacteria and parasites that have long been dormant, and to which we have little to no immunity.

Perhaps even more threatening are these mysterious giant holes in Siberia. For decades, scientists speculated on the causes of these fifty-metre wide holes. It turned out to be melting permafrost. For thousands of years, natural gas deposits have been trapped in the ice. As the ice melts, the gas is released—first lifting the earth above it, then leaving behind the giant hole.

This phenomenon might offer more insight into the future than the past. The gases being released have been under ice for thousands of years. What's being released is carbon dioxide, methane, and possibly more bacteria humans aren't used to.

Experts estimate that billions of tons of various gases will be released into the environment owing to permafrost melt, leading to increases in the greenhouse effect and even more potential global warming.

As exciting as it is to learn what melting ice reveals about our world, we're a whole lot better off if permafrost remains permanently frozen.