Once Pristine, Now Perilous: Alaska’s Waters Turn Orange as Permafrost Melts

By: | May 28th, 2024

An aerial view of the Kutuk River in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park that looks like orange paint spilling into the clear blue water (Image courtesy: Ken Hill/National Park Service)

A recent study reveals a concerning phenomenon—dozens of Alaska’s once-pristine rivers and streams are transforming into a startling shade of orange. This dramatic color change, visible from space, is suspected to be a consequence of thawing permafrost caused by climate change.

Iron-Rich Waters: The Hidden Impact of Climate Change on Alaska’s Rivers

The research suggests that minerals trapped beneath the frozen ground for millennia are being exposed as the permafrost melts. This process releases iron as well as other metals into the waterways, increasing their acidity.

Poulin and researcher Taylor Evinger conducted an analysis of samples collected over time and discovered that the orange rivers are becoming more acidic. This increase in acidity is due to a mixture of minerals entering the rivers. Some samples showed a pH level of 2.3, significantly lower than the average pH of 8, which is considered healthy for rivers in the region. These changes raise fears about potential environmental damage as well as the impact on aquatic life.

“We see a lot of different types of metals in these waters,” Evinger said. “One of the most dominant metals is iron. That’s what is causing the color change.”

Scientists are currently investigating the full extent of this transformation and its ramifications for Alaska’s delicate ecosystems. The findings underscore the urgency of addressing climate change and its far-reaching consequences.

Nidhi Goyal

Nidhi is a gold medalist Post Graduate in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

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