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WHAT’S TRAPPED IN THE ICE

The permafrost is melting, releasing gases that are turbocharging climate change

@zoeschlanger

BILL WETZEN built a good house. It was a bit small—two little rooms and a bigger one, with a skinny greenhouse running along one side—but exactly to his taste, and with two square windows looking out over a lake rimmed in black spruce trees. The lake remained frozen most of the year, a picture-postcard view of interior Alaska, and Wetzen had his little slice of great northern paradise.

But that was 15 years ago. Then the house started steadily lurching, first a few inches a year, then a few feet, directly into the lake. Or rather, the lake was growing, swallowing Wetzen’s house in increments, warping the floor, breaking each window frame, until the entire structure pitched forward like a sprinter on starting blocks.

Stepping into the house on a brisk March evening induced a small shiver of vertigo. My first step was lower than it should have been, and my second was lower than that. Wetzen loosed a 10-pound barbell from behind a door to show me how it could roll downhill across the floor of his bedroom, toward the lake. “That used to be level,” he says, then smirks, and there was a a glint of a silver hoop hanging from his left ear. Of course he built it level. But the house started tilting almost immediately after it was completed, and the conundrum has taken on an air of the tragicomic. This was a replacement house—a previous version was burned to the ground by some teenagers. When he rebuilt, he used twice the number of vertical studs necessary; even if he couldn’t prevent his new house from going up in flames, he could at least build it strong enough to withstand the wind and snow and small earthquakes common here. But those extra studs won’t keep the ground in place or the lake from growing. “Everything is going to go right into the lake. I’d say by this summer.” He made a motion like a car careening off a cliff with his hands. Splat. “And I’m just the canary in the coal mine.”

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