There’s no denying that our current environmental crisis is a hot topic that is being discussed by scientists, politicians and activists around the world. While issues such as single-use plastics, automobile emissions and deforestation are commonly cited as contributing factors (and they rightfully are), there remains one looming threat to our global security that fails to gain sufficient attention: thawing permafrost.

What is permafrost?

Put simply, permafrost is any ground that has been frozen solid for two years or more. It’s commonly found in the northern and southern poles of the Earth, as well as other environments with high-elevation and sub-zero temperatures. Permafrost is consists of a thin active top layer, which melts and refreezes annually. Underneath is solid frozen ground. A large component of this permafrost is organic material such as grass, animal remains and other plant material that has accumulated over thousands of years.

What happens when permafrost thaws?

As our global temperature continues to rise from a myriad of human activities, this frozen layer containing colossal amounts of organic matter is beginning to melt. This is exposing the time-locked organic matter to microbes that then decompose this matter, releasing carbon dioxide and methane. Both of these greenhouse gases are significant contributors to the warming of the planet. Considering the massive amount of permafrost lying beneath the frozen ground of the Arctic alone, continuing to allow it to melt at its current rate will result in our global temperatures rising past the point of no return. 

This isn’t going to just affect the polar bears either. Rising temperatures will cause even more natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes. Sea levels will inevitably rise due to melting ice caps, eventually displacing nearly 10% of the world’s population. 

This melting permafrost can also reveal unwanted diseases such as small-pox, anthrax and other deadly pathogens into our society. Being frozen in time for thousands of years, these diseases would have an easy time slipping past our immune systems and wiping out large portions of our population before a cure could be developed. In addition, the unstable melting ground can cause buildings and roads to collapse, endangering residents and drivers. 

What can I do to help?

While this all sounds very apocalyptic, and definitely has the potential to be, many promising strides have been taken to reverse and slow the impact of humanity’s carbon footprint. India is leading the way in regards to implementing solar power into communities. Even small villages that did not have access to power are being introduced to this renewable source. India is currently set to exceed its goal of supplying 40% of the country’s energy with renewable sources, set during the most recent Paris agreements. 

A desire for change and protection of the environment is also being seen in the youth across the world. Led by youth activists like Greta Thunberg, hundreds of thousands of young adults are protesting for policy change that would preserve the planet for future generations. 

You’re probably asking yourself, how can I help the cause without significantly altering my current lifestyle? The most important things you can do (and should probably be doing for other reasons that climate change) is to educate yourself on current election candidates and remember to vote. If you feel strongly about the environmental protection values of a certain candidate, let your friends and family know (without being pushy, of course). 

Another easy way to reduce your impact on the environment is by using energy more efficiently. This means installing energy efficient light sources, turning off lights when not using them, hang drying your clothing, and using natural light whenever possible. You can also reduce how much your car contributes to greenhouse gases by walking or biking as much as possible. Incorporating this into your weekly routine can also positively impact your health! 

While it’s great to start conversations with others about climate change, it can sometimes lead people to shut down and pull away from discussions. Some people love to talk about different ways to reduce environmental impact. Others couldn’t care less. I’ve found that leading by example works best. For example, when friends compliment my eye-catching patio lighting setup, I cleverly make a shoutout to their solar charging panels and how it’s helping me save on my electricity bill. See? Not too pushy.