Climate change is causing dormant viruses and bacteria to reappear as ice melts.

Global Warming Causing Dormant Viruses And Bacteria In Ice To Awaken

Humans having been living alongside viruses and bacteria for a very long time, but what happens when climate change and global warming cause dangerous viruses and bacteria to awaken in ice after thousands of years that humans have no resistance to? This is a question which humans may very soon be facing as permafrost soils are now melting ancient ice and long-buried bacteria and viruses are bursting back to life.

While it may sound unusual, viruses that were buried under ice have been known to return to life again, as may have been the case in the Yamal Peninsula in 2016 when a 12-year-old boy lost his life to anthrax and 20 others were hospitalized. The current scientific theory behind the transmission of anthrax in these cases is that a reindeer was once infected with anthrax 75 years ago and was buried deep in the permafrost.

Due to global warming there was a major heatwave in the Siberian tundra in 2016 and the frozen soil began to thaw. The corpse of the reindeer, which had previously been trapped under the permafrost, still contained anthrax and released the infectious disease into the food supply, soil, and water, which were in close proximity to it.

NASA scientists monitor climate change and ice loss in Pituffik, Greenland on March 26, 2017.
NASA scientists monitor climate change and ice loss in Pituffik, Greenland on March 26, 2017. [Image by Mario Tama/Getty Images]

Because of the tainted water, soil and food supply, two thousand reindeer that were busy grazing in this area contracted anthrax from the reindeer carcass and these infected reindeer are believed to have contributed to the case of the 12-year-old boy and the twenty others who then contracted anthrax.

The worry now is that climate change will cause more of these incidents to occur as further ice melts around the globe at an alarming rate. Without global warming, you would normally expect roughly around 50 centimeters of superficial permafrost layers to melt during each summer. However, climate change is making much older layers of permafrost appear, and in these soils lurk viruses and bacteria that are able to stay alive and thrive for extended periods of time. They could potentially even survive for up to 1 million years, as BBC News reports.

Jean-Michel Claverie, an evolutionary biologist at Aix-Marseille University in France, notes that the conditions in permafrost are perfect for preserving viruses.

“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark. Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past.”

Global warming is causing temperatures to rise in the Arctic Circle at an alarming rate, and it is rising there three times faster than in any other part of the world. This could start to affect people in places like northern Russia, where millions of reindeer who died from anthrax were buried in 7,000 different sites around the area. And while there is only anthrax to worry about in northern Russia currently, what other viruses and bacteria might be hiding under the permafrost that we don’t know about?

Live viruses like the 1918 Spanish flu have been found in bodies that were buried in Alaska, and it is believed that victims of the bubonic plague and smallpox are probably under permafrost in Siberia. After a study was conducted in 2011, Marina Podolnaya and Boris Revich described how global warming and climate change could cause irreversible consequences if permafrost begins to melt and deadly viruses are unleashed on neighboring communities.

“As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th Centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”

Bacteria also could easily be unleashed thanks to global warming. NASA scientists were able to effectively demonstrate this in 2005 when they took bacteria in Alaska that had been frozen for 32,000 years and revived it. Despite the fact that these microbes had long been frozen since the Pleistocene period, they sprang back to life once the ice had melted and appeared to be completely unaffected by their lack of activity for 32,000 years.

Living spores which cause the infectious disease Anthrax could be released as climate change causes permafrost to melt.
Living spores that cause the infectious disease anthrax could be released as climate change causes permafrost to melt. [Image by Staff/Getty Images]

Not to be outdone, in 2007 scientists managed to extract bacteria from ice in Antarctica that had been frozen for 8 million years and successfully revived it. It is important, however, to remember that not all bacteria can be successfully brought to life again. Anthrax is an exception because spores are formed from it, and these spores can survive for extended periods of time. This means that all bacteria that form spores are a risk to humans, and this includes tetanus along with the pathogen that is known to cause botulism, Clostridium botulinum.

Jean-Michel Claverie believes that climate change and global warming could cause ancient viruses from older hominin species like the Denisovans and the Neanderthals to re-emerge again. As these populations of humans once lived in Siberia and the Arctic, Claverie believes it is certainly conceivable that these viruses could still pose a threat to people today.

“The possibility that we could catch a virus from a long-extinct Neanderthal suggests that the idea that a virus could be eradicated from the planet is wrong, and gives us a false sense of security. This is why stocks of vaccine should be kept, just in case.”

Do you think that people are more at risk today from ancient deadly viruses and bacteria in ice due to climate change and global warming?

[Featured Image by Pool/Getty Images]

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