Earlier this year a handful of sinkholes suddenly appeared in the remote Yamal Peninsula region of Siberia. These aren’t your average sinkholes that might suddenly open up and swallow a car, or more terrifyingly, your bedroom; these are sinkholes on steroids: one measuring 20 by 30 meters. Typical sinkholes develop over deep limestone deposits. In time, limestone slowly dissolves by percolating water, until one day the ground is unstable enough to collapse inward.
These ‘roid-rage sinkholes are different. One characteristic of Siberia is the presence of permafrost, which is basically what it sounds like: thick, permanently frozen layers of soil. This is not a place you would expect to see large sinkholes forming, unless something is happening to weaken the permafrost. Sure enough, there have been several unseasonably warm winters back-to-back in the region. The reigning theory posits that the lack of a good maintaining freeze in the Yamal Peninsula has melted the permafrost just enough for it to weaken, which has resulted in a blowout of trapped methane. Researchers measured the atmospheric concentration of methane deep within one of the sinkholes, and returned with an intimidating 9.6%.1 This may not seem like much, until you compare it to our typical atmospheric methane concentration of 0.000179%.
Since methane is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, we’re looking at a domino effect; as temperatures remain warm, more permafrost weakens, the pressure of the trapped methane increases, causing more sinkholes to form, which releases more methane, which traps more heat, which causes unseasonably warm weather, which results in melting permafrost, and so on, and so forth, to infinity and back again plus one.
Are they going to make a disaster movie about this? Did they already? I imagine a mix of The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and San Andreas. It could be even better if a race of subterranean methane-tolerant humanoids with cannibalistic tendencies (ahem, The Descent) were spewed forth from each sinkhole opening. If they throw in the comedic tone of This is the End, I’d probably go see it.
I would have to smuggle in my own bag of peanut butter M&M’s, because I’ve found that they typically do not sell them at the theater.
Going back to the whole unseasonably-warm-temperature-in-a-cold-climate, the temperature recorded at the Esperanza base in Antarctica was a record balmy 63.5°F (17.5°C) last March. As the report broke out, multiple newscasters followed up with, “It is warmer today in Antarctica than it is in San Francisco!” a tone that makes me feel like I should add a winking smiley face emoticon to the text. This annoys for two reasons. First, San Francisco does not really get all that warm in the first place, and second, unseasonably warm temperatures in Antarctica could be a Really Big Deal, worth more than a flippant and possibly misleading comparison. Antarctica is in fact known for complex temperature variation and it’s quite possible that the lowest temperature ever could be recorded this year. This isn’t giant-sinkhole-almost- capable-of-swallowing-a-football-field scary, but it is still something to be uneasy over.
Problems have symptoms, and symptoms can be divided into red flags and insidious occurrences. Red flags are obvious signs of trouble, like a shortness of breath, bloody stools, or multiple giant sinkholes suddenly opening and releasing copious amounts of methane into the atmosphere. In contrast, insidious occurrences often at first go unnoticed but eventually get worse, and sometimes can trigger red flags. These include things like weight loss, fatigue, and unseasonably warm temperatures. The trick is to pinpoint insidious occurrences without looking like an alarmist, or a hypochondriac.
While we are on the topic of insidious things, there are quite a few unfortunate maladies that lack major red flags, and are near-impossible to detect until you are deeply afflicted. The headline-grabbing version of this is Alzheimer’s disease. If all the media narrative is to be believed, one day we realize we left our keys in the fridge, and the next, we don’t recognize our own loved ones. Despite all the press, we don’t know how to cure it, prevent it, and like other insidious maladies, it’s really tricky to diagnose before it’s already here. As for how it develops, one of the more prominent theories is that our grey matter is degraded through the gradual buildup of sticky beta-amyloid proteins. Amyloid proteins are insoluble proteins that tend to fold improperly and clump together; all the different ways they can screw up are implicated in a wide array of horrible diseases (e.g. everything from type II diabetes to Parkinson’s disease to atherosclerosis). The particular improperly-folded form known as the beta amyloid protein just so happens to be toxic to neurons. Damage to our neurons triggers inflammation, which results in a buildup of a different protein with a tendency to get all tangled up, named tau. It could be that tau buildup results in a larger load of beta amyloid proteins, which damage neurons, which launches an inflammatory response, which leads to deposition of tangled tau proteins, and so on, and so forth, to infinity and back again plus one.
To prevent something horrible from happening, we first have to find out how it happens. Now that we have a pretty good theory, we have something to work with. Can we prevent or restrict unseasonably-warm temperatures from occurring? Can we prevent or slow the buildup of sticky plaques in our brain? A great deal of horrible diseases have an underlying genetic factor, such as Huntington’s disease. If we carry the mutated gene characteristic of this disease, there is a 99.9% chance that if we live long enough, we will develop Huntington’s disease (I’d say 100% chance, but logically, I can’t claim there is a 100% chance of something happening unless I look at an infinite amount of cases first). However, Alzheimer’s is different. Genetic factors only account for a possible 15-35% of cases, so we look to environmental and/or lifestyle causes.
Much of these findings on amyloid and tau proteins are coinciding with recent discoveries on the importance of sleep, and there might be a fair bit of overlap. Recent research on sleep and wakefulness has shown that our cerebrospinal fluid (which is exactly what it sounds like) flows more rapidly while we are asleep. This rapid movement is correlated with a decrease in amyloid proteins. As the theory stands, it is this rapid cycling of cerebrospinal fluid that helps remove amyloid proteins, lest they build up and fold in improper and destructive ways.2 In other words, it’s like we have our own wash-spin cycle going on in our brains on a nightly basis. Even if the amyloid protein-Alzheimer’s link proves to be incorrect, or at the very least is more complicated, amyloid protein buildup is linked to a decrease in mental clarity, which is oh-so-important in nearly every facet of our lives and might explain why we feel so shitty after we don’t get enough sleep for a few nights in a row.
These conclusions suggest that sleep might be one of the most important things that we do, and good sleep should be up there along with a balanced diet and moderate exercise. Bragging about how little sleep we got last night is akin to bragging about how wasted we got last night.3 Related studies show how circadian rhythms affect our quality of sleep. Circadian rhythms are chronological (24-hour cycle) attributes that affect our physical, mental, and emotional selves. They roughly follow a dark-light cycle, but still can vary from person to person. It’s the variation in circadian rhythms that explain the Early Bird/Night Owl characteristics, and how annoying (and possibly unhealthy) it is for a Night Owl to adhere to an Early Bird lifestyle. If you’re like me, now you can go ahead and tell this to everyone who called you lazy because you weren’t really keen on getting up at 6 in the morning for high school, and still aren’t really keen on being at work by 8 in the morning, and why you look so vacant at a 9 am meeting.
We are going to really need better mental clarity if we are going to solve major issues at hand, such as identifying red flags like mega sinkholes and their insidious precursors, like unseasonably warm temperatures. The world is caving in on itself, but we won’t be able to do anything about it if we are continuously neglecting our own intracranial wash-spin cycle.
1 Moskvitch, K. Mysterious Siberian crater attributed to methane. Nature News, July 31, 2014
2 Lucey, BP., Bateman, RJ. 2014. Amyloid-β diurnal pattern: possible role of sleep in Alzheimer’s disease pathogenesis. Neurobiol. Aging. 35:S29-S34
3 Infants are a reasonable, justified cause for neglecting good sleep. I acknowledge this and am out of my element here. I will not touch the topic with a twenty-foot pole.