(Photo credit: Boris Radosavljevic / Wikimedia)

If you leave frozen food sitting out on the counter for too long, it starts to thaw and it will eventually rot. The same goes for plant and animal remains that have long been trapped in frozen Arctic soil called permafrost.

Brendan Kelly directs a collaborative program called the Study of Environmental Arctic Change.

“A quarter of the lands in the Northern Hemisphere are underlain by permafrost, ground that’s perpetually frozen and has been in many cases for thousands of years,” he says.

That permafrost stores an enormous amount of carbon because it holds so much organic matter. But as the climate warms, some permafrost is starting to thaw.

“As that ground thaws, all of a sudden, microorganisms become active and they degrade that plant matter, that animal matter in the soil,” Kelly says. “And in that degradation process, it releases carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere.”

That speeds up global warming, which could cause even more permafrost to thaw, accelerating the dangerous cycle.

Kelly says it’s just one example of how the Arctic can affect the global climate.

“The Arctic is, seemingly, to a lot of people’s minds, just this distant, not very consequential part of the world,” he says. “But it turns out it’s hugely consequential.”

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.