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League of Conservation Voters

I desperately need to clean out my freezer. There are things there I'd swear I haven't seen in years. What is this? Chicken? Why do I have frozen tamales? When did I eat sweet potatoes?

Well, it turns out Mother Nature has this conundrum too.


The permafrost is kind of like nature’s own deep freeze.

The permafrost is a band of permanently frozen land that rings the Arctic Circle, and it makes up about a quarter of all the land in the Northern Hemisphere. Some sections can be nearly a mile thick! And though the top layer may thaw and re-freeze as the seasons change, the lower levels stay ice cold and rock solid.

Which makes it an amazing place to find old, preserved things. Some of which are, frankly, astounding.

Without further ado, here are six of the weirdest things to come out of the permafrost.

1. Ancient plants

The ancient plants would have looked similar to this white campion. Image from Manuel Anastácio/Wikimedia Commons.

In 2012, a team of Russian scientists revived 30,000-year-old plants they found frozen in the tundra. The plants appeared to be an ancient form of narrow-leafed campion and were found in the cache of an ice-age ground squirrel.

The scientists brought the plants back to the lab and, through a little coaxing, were able to actually grow new specimens. They even flowered and produced new seeds!

2. Giant viruses

Image from AJC/Flickr.

Inspired by the Russian team’s success with the plant, other scientists wanted to see what else they could find preserved in the permafrost. By fishing through samples of permafrost, the scientists found a 30,000-year-old monster of a virus dubbed Pithovirus sibericum.

The virus was staggering large, nearly the size of a bacteria. If you don't know viruses, that's like finding a cat the size of an rhino. What’s more, it seems almost alien — two-thirds of its proteins are unlike those of any other virus. No need to worry, however, as it appears to only hunt amoebas. We’re not on the menu.

3. Woolly mammoths

Image from Yatadeihom/Wikimedia Commons.

In 2007, a reindeer breeder named Yuri Khudi found something odd in the frozen tundra of Russia's Yamal Peninsula. He trekked over 150 miles to notify a local museum director. When authorities arrived, they found a nearly 42,000-year-old baby mammoth.

The baby (which had been moved to outside a local store) was named Lyuba after Khudi's wife. Lyuba is one of the best-preserved mammoths in the world; scientists could even tell what she ate before she died.

Lyuba is only one of many mammoths unearthed in the permafrost. Other ice-age animals have been found too, like horses and woolly rhinos.

4. Really weird shapes

Image from Emma Pike/Wikimedia Commons.

Not everything that comes out of the tundra is alive. Sometimes the Earth itself gets freaky.

These weird shapes include small, volcano-shaped hills called pingos (which some people have claimed to have seen explode like massive, icy landmines), ice wedges, and geometric shapes made of rocks. These weird shapes happen when water in the ground keeps freezing and thawing.

In the last few years people have even reported massive craters. The craters were probably made when underground gases built up and exploded outward.

5. Human bodies

A scene from Svalbard nearly 100 years ago. Image from Richard Fleischhut/Wikimedia Commons.

People sometimes bury bodies in the frozen ground. And sometimes those bodies don’t stay buried.

In the 1980s, for instance, a river exposed a mass grave near Pokhodsk, Siberia. There are some fears that bodies like these could be reservoirs for past diseases. In 1998, six frozen bodies in Svalbard were found to have traces of the Spanish flu, which killed 50 million to 100 million people in the early 20th century.

6. Puppies

Image from Jonathan Kriz/Flickr.

Scientists have found dogs in the permafrost, including a family of puppies. The animals were likely buried in a landslide and were in amazing condition, considering they were over 10,000 years old.

"The condition of our new find is perfect," Sergei Fedorov, head of exhibitions at the Mammoth Museum of Yakutsk, told The Siberian Times. "It is preserved from nose to tail, including the hair."

The dog could be one of the earliest domesticated breeds and may even be the same kind of dog that crossed the Arctic land bridge into North America along with people.

But there's something else coming out of the permafrost. And it's not so much weird as it is a bit worrisome.

Besides puppies and mammoths, the permafrost has also trapped a lot of old organic matter, like peat moss and decayed plants. If the permafrost thaws and that stuff starts to rot, it could release a lot of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

And it looks like a huge thaw is on the way. Climate change could thaw a quarter of Alaska's near-surface permafrost by 2100. Other parts of the world are expected to lose just as much, and 60% of the world's permafrost may be gone by the end of the next century.

If that 60% happens, it will release an estimated 190 billion tons of carbon dioxide — as much as half of all human activity has released since the industrial age. And the trapped methane could have an even bigger impact — the equivalent of another 7.5 billion to 400 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Image from "Steven Universe."*

That would have a massive impact on the atmosphere and could fundamentally change our global climate.

Luckily, there's something we can do. Stop leaving the freezer door open already.

Slowing our own carbon emissions is one of the best ways we have of reducing climate change and keeping the permafrost perma-frosty.

As cool as all these discoveries are, I don't mind it if some things stay frozen for the sake of our world.

If you're as sick of this defrosting as me, consider signing this petition from the League of Conservation Voters showing the government your support for the Clean Power Plan.

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