Chemical Archive

As the world's glaciers melt, they've begun to release an archive of banned industrial substances back into the environment, chemicals that have been locked, frozen, inside the glacial ice for up to thirty years.

[Image: Photo via the Alfred Wegener Institute].

According to Discovery, "many persistent pollutants, including PCBs, dioxins and several chlorine-containing pesticides [such as] DDT" have begun to leach out from melting glaciers in places like Switzerland.

The idea of a poisonous atmospheric archive being unintentionally released—on a global scale—makes me wonder what sorts of news reports we might read in several thousand years' time, when carbon tombs start to leak their quarantined contents back into the atmosphere. The buried skies of an industrial era, put to pharaonic rest beneath the earth's surface, will make their operatic reappearance in future human history.

Will hissing vents of carbon dioxide gas be found someday, six thousand years from now, when these specially carved geological resting places of the sky crack open?

I was astounded to read, for instance, two years ago in New Scientist, that "burying carbon dioxide under the seabed is likely to remain controversial because of concerns that it will eventually leak out. However, a team of environmental engineers now claims that these worries are unfounded, and that natural reactions will lock away the carbon dioxide within aquifers for millennia." For millennia. In other words, a catastrophic release of entombed CO2 will re-enter the atmosphere—and it will do so well within what could still be the anthropological era.

Already, we see lead, DDT, PCBs, and more flowing out from melting glaciers, bringing back a chemical presence that we thought we had effectively regulated. What strange myths of haunted returns and cursed ancestors might we be forced to conjure when these other, more deeply buried elemental forces reappear?

(Spotted via @stevesilberman).

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whence the picture?

October 16, 2009 1:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

six thousand years from now? way things are going I would give it maybe 100...

October 16, 2009 2:37 AM  
Anonymous Larry Here said...

Yes, I'm with Dace - What's the deal with the photo above? What exactly are we looking at. Couldn't find it at the Wegener site. Is it a huge glacier sticking out OVER the ocean, in the air? Noooo, couldn't be, could it? Please illuminate, Geoff...

October 18, 2009 2:24 AM  
Blogger Donna Sink said...

Seriously, can't we shoot this stuff to outer space to get rid of it forever? Expensive, I know, but won't it be more expensive to try to figure out how to combat it when it seeps back up out of the ocean later?

October 18, 2009 3:52 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

The image is of something called the "Elephant Foot" glacier; here is a much better link. I will change the link in the caption, as well...

October 18, 2009 3:58 PM  

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