Ice Age Mummies Frozen In Time

The article discusses the remarkable discoveries that have been made in the Arctic due to the preservation capabilities of permafrost. These discoveries include the well-preserved remains of a woolly mammoth calf, a grey wolf pup, and a cave bear. However, the thawing of permafrost due to climate change poses a threat to these discoveries and has far-reaching effects, including the release of greenhouse gases and the endangerment of communities and infrastructure.

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Remarkable Discoveries in the Arctic

In June 2022, a gold miner in the Canadian Yukon made a remarkable discovery. While working on the traditional lands of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, he uncovered the exceptionally well-preserved frozen remains of a woolly mammoth calf that died 30,000 years ago. This find isn’t the only of its kind because the Arctic holds many buried secrets.

The Permafrost Phenomenon

About 15% of the Northern Hemisphere contains permafrost—that is, ground that doesn’t thaw seasonally but has instead stayed frozen for at least two years—and, typically, much longer. The oldest permafrost yet discovered is located in the Yukon and has been frozen for 740,000 years. The thickness of permafrost also ranges, from just 1 meter in some areas to over a kilometer in others. Permafrost is exceptionally good at preserving biological remains.

If any ice crystals are close to remains buried in permafrost, they help draw moisture away. Microorganisms that would otherwise quickly decompose plant and animal tissues operate at slower metabolic rates in these subfreezing temperatures. The outcome is that, instead of having to rely on fossilized skeletons to extrapolate what an ancient animal might have looked like, permafrost can sometimes offer scientists literal freeze-frames of times long gone.

Unearthing the Past

In 2016, another gold miner came face-to-face with a 7-week-old grey wolf pup that had been preserved in permafrost for 57,000 years. Researchers learned that she’d been feasting on salmon, and think she died quickly, possibly when the den she was nestled in collapsed. In 2020, reindeer herders encountered remains that unmistakably belonged to a bear. But it turned out that they were as much as 39,500 years old. They belonged to a cave bear. Its species went extinct about 24,000 years ago. Before this, scientists had only ever seen cave bear skeletal remains.

Even incomplete animal remains found in permafrost have yielded incredible results. In 2021, researchers identified a new species of mammoth by reconstructing DNA sequences from 1.6-million-year-old mammoth teeth—making it the oldest sequenced DNA on record. And extraordinary finds go beyond the animal kingdom: in 2012, scientists successfully regenerated a flowering tundra plant from seeds they found encased in 32,000-year-old squirrel burrows.

The Threat of Thawing Permafrost

However, all the prehistoric remains we have yet to discover in permafrost are at risk, along with much more, because permafrost is thawing rapidly. Climate change is warming the Arctic at 3 to 4 times the rate of the rest of the world. And an increased frequency of extreme weather events, like lightning and wildfires, is burning the plants and soil that otherwise help to keep permafrost cool.

When permafrost thaws, it has concerning and far-reaching effects. The ground can fracture and collapse in on itself, and the landscape can experience flooding and erosion, making previously stable trees tilt and form so-called “drunken forests.” It can also trigger massive landslides and threaten critical infrastructure. By the year 2050, permafrost thaw may endanger 3.6 million people. This includes many Indigenous and First Nations people who have lived across the Arctic region since time immemorial. Right now, they’re dealing with difficult decisions about how to protect their communities and traditional ways of life in the face of climate change.

The Global Impact of Thawing Permafrost

The effects of thawing will also extend far beyond the Arctic. This is because permafrost stores an estimated 1.6 trillion tons of carbon. That’s over double the amount in Earth’s atmosphere as of 2022—and more than humans have ever released by burning fossil fuels. Permafrost is one of the world’s largest carbon reservoirs because of all the organic material it contains—some as intact remains, but much of it in the form of partially decomposed soils and sediments.

When it begins thawing, microorganisms decompose organic material more efficiently and release gases like carbon dioxide and methane. This triggers a feedback loop: as more gases are released, the climate warms, causing more permafrost to thaw and release even more greenhouse gases.

To preserve snapshots of what the planet was like thousands of years ago—when mammoths and cave bears trod its terrain—and to support the diversity of life on Earth for thousands of years to come, the Arctic needs to keep its cool.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does the discovery of well-preserved remains in permafrost reveal about the ancient past?
  2. How does permafrost contribute to the preservation of biological remains?
  3. What are some examples of remarkable discoveries made through the study of permafrost?
  4. What are the potential consequences of thawing permafrost?
  5. Why is it important to protect the traditional lands and ways of life of Indigenous and First Nations people in the Arctic?
  6. How does the thawing of permafrost affect the global climate?
  7. What can be done to mitigate the effects of permafrost thawing and protect the valuable information it holds?
  8. What are the ethical considerations in studying and potentially disturbing ancient remains found in permafrost?

Lesson Vocabulary

Gold minerA person who mines for gold.

Many gold miners flocked to California during the Gold Rush of the 1800s.

Canadian YukonA territory in northwest Canada known for its vast wilderness and natural resources.

Exploring the breathtaking landscapes of the Canadian Yukon is a dream for many outdoor enthusiasts.

Woolly mammoth calfA young woolly mammoth, an extinct species of elephant with long, shaggy hair.

The discovery of a well-preserved woolly mammoth calf in Siberia provided valuable insights into the life of these ancient creatures.

Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First NationA First Nation community of indigenous people in the Yukon region of Canada.

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation has a rich cultural heritage and plays an important role in the preservation of Yukon’s natural environment.

ArcticThe region surrounding the North Pole, characterized by extreme cold weather and a polar ice cap.

Polar bears are perfectly adapted to survive in the harsh conditions of the Arctic.

PermafrostPermanently frozen ground found in cold regions, consisting of soil, rock, or sediment.

The construction of buildings in permafrost regions requires special techniques to prevent damage to the frozen ground.

Northern HemisphereThe half of the Earth that lies north of the equator.

The Northern Hemisphere experiences winter during the months of December, January, and February.

Ice crystalsTiny particles of ice that form when water freezes, often creating intricate patterns.

As the temperature dropped, beautiful ice crystals began to form on the windowpane.

MicroorganismsMicroscopic organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, that can only be seen with a microscope.

Microorganisms play a crucial role in breaking down organic matter and recycling nutrients in the ecosystem.

Biological remainsThe physical remnants of living organisms, such as bones, shells, or pollen.

Archaeologists discovered ancient biological remains at the site, providing valuable insights into the diet of early humans.

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