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Students and community members gathered to protest climate change and lack of policy as part of a bigger movement started by Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. (Photo/Rebecca Wright)

You’ve heard of melting ice caps, but here’s its more terrifying evil cousin: melting permafrost.

Thawed permafrost will have serious tangible consequences in people’s lives in addition to increased contribution to climate change.

So sorry to add to your growing fear of climate calamities, but you should really care about melting permafrost.

Permafrost, according to National Geographic, is permanently frozen earth and is typically comprised of soil, gravel or sand bound by ice. Unless you frequent the Northernmost parts of Canada, Russia, Alaska, and other parts of the world that barely get above freezing, you’ve never seen permafrost.

But here’s the thing: Permafrost can dump some serious loads of carbon into our already carbon-saturated atmosphere. Increasing global temperatures will melt the ice and release the stored carbon in the earth. Not only that, but the thawed-out microbes will begin respirating, emitting methane into the atmosphere as well. And let’s not forget that methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

There’s an estimated 1.4 trillion tons of carbon believed to be in the Arctic permafrost. If it goes nowhere, then great. Life as we know it will keep on its slow anthropogenic changes, but slow nonetheless. But melted permafrost contributes to the carbon cocktail already inebriating this planet.

That’s all the intangible future, though. What melting permafrost will do within the next few decades is potentially displace four million people and disrupt 70% of the infrastructure built on permafrost land. And since 85% of Alaska is permafrost, the U.S. has nearly a whole state that could be irreparably augmented from thawing land. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I still care about my fellow American.

I know, I’m being all “Gloom and Doom” when it comes to the environment, a total damper on Earth Day. Earth Day is about celebrating the environment we have and fighting against polluting entities for its continued health. But while smiling at trees and fighting for charismatic polar bears and trying to protect our coastal regions, we might as well add shrinking permafrost to the list of things to worry about.

Athens doesn’t have permafrost. Neither does most of the U.S. But our combined carbon emitting actions contribute to the global rise in temperature which then melts this pernicious icy ecosystem. We need to check ourselves before we, quite literally, wreck ourselves.

I’m scared of melting permafrost, but I’m optimistic that environmentalist of today will bore through the thick skulls of climate denialist politicians. Environmental reformations are coming, and when they finally arrive, I’ll be thankful we can keep the permafrost we have still frozen.

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