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Cambridge University Science Magazine
One of my fondest childhood memories is my annual trips to my ancestral village in Pakistan. The lush wheat farms that seem to span across eternity drew me in. I would accompany my uncle on his tractor rides as he drove around his farm boasting about his ripe harvest. As I grew older, I noticed his gregarious nature was often marred by a pitiful harvest. A few times locusts attacked his crops, other times extreme droughts or flash floods gripped our village. He was constantly worried about feeding his family and paying his workers. He was the first victim of climate change I encountered in my life. Unfortunately, he won’t be the last.

We are finding evidence of climate change all around us. Unfortunately, each year the climate predictions are getting more ominous, the environmental transformations are getting more dramatic, and the social, health and economic impacts of climate change are getting more disastrous.

The Troubling Thaw

One of the ecosystems vulnerable to climate change is the permafrost. It is the permanently frozen layer below the Earth's surface covering 15 million km2 of the land surface. That’s almost double the size of Australia! The organic-rich permafrost is an extensive storage unit for carbon. Containing almost 1,700 billion tonnes, the frozen soil harbours almost twice the amount of carbon as the atmosphere. However, rising global temperatures are accelerating the permafrost's transformation from a carbon sink to a carbon source. In fact, scientists have warned that up to 15% of the carbon stored in the permafrost is vulnerable to release in the form of greenhouse gases by the end of the century.

Carbon Time Bomb

As the temperature of the ground above rises, microbes trapped in the permafrost start to decompose organic matter into potent greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Permafrost thawing perturbs the methane hydrates — these are slush-like deposits formed when underground methane is trapped in high pressure and low temperature conditions — opening a gateway for methane to vent into the environment. Methane is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the Earth over a 20-year period. Greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation (IR) — heat energy from the sun — and re-emit it back to the surface warming the Earth. The rapid release of greenhouse gases is accelerating global warming. The rising planetary temperatures create a vicious positive feedback, further melting slabs of permafrost. Scientists have predicted that a 2°C increase in global average temperatures will result in a loss of about 40% of the world's permafrost by the end of this century. These worrying statistics propelled the world leaders of 195 countries to sign the historic Paris Agreement in 2015. Each nation committed to taking measures to limit global warming well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C. But even a 1.5°C rise in temperature will manifest in unprecedented transformation across the Earth’s frozen landscape resulting in a 4.8 million km2 loss of permafrost. We are headed towards losing ice mass that is bigger than the combined area of the European Union.

Colossal Craters

Permafrost is not just a rich carbon reservoir. It also acts as the glue that binds the peat, gravel, soil, vegetation, and ice together. As the permafrost disintegrates abruptly, destabilisation episodes inflict the landscape giving rise to massive craters called thermokarst. These disfigured fissures get inundated with melting ice water forming new lakes and wetlands. In fact, if you dare to venture into the taiga forests of eastern Siberia, you will encounter the treacherous Batagaika megaslump, known to locals as the ‘gateway to the underworld’. Measuring up at over 3000 feet long and 280 feet deep, it is the largest thaw slump on the planet, and it continues to grow at a disturbing speed.

Permafrost Pandemic

The Batagaika crater has exposed remnants of ancient creatures that walked on earth eons ago including a woolly mammoth, a musk ox, and a perfectly preserved 40,000-year-old foal. Microbes that seek refuge in the carcasses of these ancient animals are a threat to communities and cattle. In 2016, the Siberian tundra experienced a wildly warm summer. Soon, dozens of people fell ill to a mysterious sickness that ended up killing 200,000 reindeer herds. The culprit? A reindeer carcass that died in an anthrax outbreak some 75 years ago. As the infected reindeer corpse decomposed in the heat, the dormant anthrax-causing bacteria sprung to life. As the permafrost melts across the Arctic and Antarctic, the chances of us catching a disease from a Neanderthal's remains is very much a possibility. Are modern humans and health systems ready to fight a never-before-seen biological foe? If climate change continues to dissolve the permafrost, our survival on this planet in the coming centuries is in grave jeopardy.

Crumbling Cities and Mass Migration

Collapsing permafrost ecosystems are also a threat to ground stability. Diminishing periglacial ground steadiness will affect at least a third of the infrastructure in the Arctic’s permafrost zone and upend the lives of nearly four million people by 2050. Vanishing permafrost, receding glaciers, rising sea-levels, and climbing global temperatures are paving way for climate catastrophes such as floods, droughts, and water shortages. According to a World Bank report, more than 143 million people from Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia will be forced to become 'environmental migrants' as they flee their homes due to climate disruption. Mass internal displacement and international migration of communities from these low-income regions will create an unprecedented human rights crisis. Millions will be forced into abject poverty, further widening the wealth gap and creating social disparities that are bound to reverberate across generations.

Past Perils and Terrifying Tomorrows

Climate change drives irregular weather patterns. Heavy pre-monsoon rainfall caused by usually warm ocean waters provides a fertile breeding ground for swarms of locusts. The 2019-2021 locust infestation across the Horn of Africa and parts of India and Pakistan was the worst locust attack in decades, eviscerating crops in their wake. Low crop yields pushes up the prices of staple foods such as wheat and rice, eventually creating inflation and food shortages. Hunger is deadly. It paves way for civil unrest and political instability in regions that are already bearing the brunt of climate change. This is just the tip of the iceberg, in this case, a fast-melting iceberg. While natural disasters have always rocked our planet, they are now occurring with an unprecedented severity and frequency. In 2020 alone, our world was ravaged by Australian bushfires; Siberian heat waves; record fires in Pantanal - the world's largest tropical wetlands; devastating floods in Kenya and Uganda; super-cyclone Ampham in India; and typhoon Goni in the Philippines. All of these unwelcome weather records are directly or indirectly driven by human fingerprints on the climate. And from what the climate experts predict, this is just the beginning.

Attention, Activism, and Action

Millennials and Gen-Z are guaranteed to witness the imploding impact of climate change in their lifetimes, and these demographic cohorts are the most concerned about the climate emergency. We organise ‘Fridays For Future’ and ‘Zero Hour’ movements to push our leaders to take concrete action to rein in on carbon emissions. We ardently support green deals, favour eco-friendly products, and challenge climate change deniers. We are climate pessimists, yet we remain hopeful. We hope that collective activism will potentially mitigate the irreversible climate damages that have been inflicted. We owe our planet at least that.

After encountering failed crops year after year, my uncle ended up selling his farm to a sugarcane factory. My annual visits to my village no longer consists of bumpy tractor rides across the lush farms. Instead, I inhale toxic factory fumes and walk on the tar-laced cobbled streets paved on the land that once belonged to my forefathers.

Mahlaqua Noor is a first year Immunology PhD student at Hughes Hall College. Artwork by Eva Pillai.