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Scientists discover alarming 'conveyor belt' phenomenon occurring in the Arctic Ocean — how this could impact the rest of the world

"That material drains into the … sea as a soup of dissolved [pollution]."

"That material drains into the ... sea as a soup of dissolved [pollution]."

Photo Credit: iStock

A recent study found that thawing permafrost paired with runoff from a Canadian river is triggering significant carbon release in part of the Arctic Ocean.

What's happening?

The Arctic Ocean is regarded as one of Earth's crucial carbon sinks, absorbing as much as 198 million tons of this planet-warming gas per year — more than three times what New York City emits in that timeframe, according to an article provided by NASA and published by Phys.org.

However, scientists recently discovered that thawing permafrost paired with the emptying of carbon-rich runoff from Canada's Mackenzie River into a part of the Arctic Ocean called the Beaufort Sea is causing the water there to release more carbon dioxide than it absorbs annually.

As the river makes its 1,000-mile journey toward the sea, it acts as a "conveyor belt" for mineral nutrients and organic and inorganic matter.

"That material drains into the Beaufort Sea as a soup of dissolved carbon and sediment," according to the Phys.org article. "Some of the carbon is eventually released, or outgassed, into the atmosphere by natural processes."

Why is this study concerning?

The Mackenzie River and its delta have experienced significantly warmer temperatures in recent years, which has led to more melting and thawing of waterways and landscapes (i.e., more of that carbon and sediment soup). 

Previously, scientists believed that the southeastern portion of the Beaufort Sea absorbed more planet-warming gases than it released. The new science, aided by state-of-the-art computer modeling, found that this part of the Beaufort Sea actually experiences an annual net carbon release of over 140,000 tons, which is equal to the annual pollution from 28,000 gasoline-powered cars, according to Phys.org.

What can I do to help with carbon sink loss?

Oceans and forests are regarded as important carbon sinks, but they will lose their impact or disappear completely the more humans continue to emit carbon. That's why it's important to cut our planet-warming pollution.

You can help by voting for political candidates who support climate-friendly policies and contacting government officials. The Citizens' Climate Lobby and Elders Climate Action are two organizations that help you draft and send a letter to elected officials, including members of Congress.

You can also take small actions in your day-to-day life. One example is changing the way you shop for clothing — instead of buying from "fast fashion" brands, try perusing the racks at thrift shops or looking for secondhand steals online from brands such as The North Face or Francesca's.

Making small changes around the house also adds up (plus, it will save you money). Start by unplugging "vampire" appliances when they're not in use, taking steps to reduce water waste, weatherizing your home, or signing up for community solar.

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