As the Earth warms, the polar ice caps melt. In fact, the polar ice caps have melted faster in the last 20 years than they have in the previous 10,000 years. This melting ice has risen sea water levels around the entire globe, as the dark water pools from released from the melted ice absorb more heat from the sun’s rays than the white ice that used to reflect the warmth back into space. As this fresh water begins to mix with the ocean water, the chemical make-up of the ocean changes. This increased salt concentration in the ocean affects marine life. But there is another affect to this melting ice that many do not know about: the release of ancient deadly diseases.
As the earths temperature rises, more and more permafrost begins to melt. Permafrost is permanently frozen soil that is found in high altitudes. It stores a high amounts of carbon and methane and if it melts it will release that carbon dioxide and methane gas into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Both of these gasses are huge contributors to the warming of the planet. Permafrost, however, is also a great habitat for bacteria to remain active and alive for a very long time. It is unknown how long different bacteria can survive. Essentially, there may be buried bacteria deep within polar ice.
Jean- Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France states “permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen and it is dark.” He goes further to tell us that “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.”
We know that nearly 2,000 reindeer died 75 years ago from an anthrax outbreak and were buried in Siberia’s permafrost. Because of the recent melting, last year those infected reindeer carcasses thawed and infected 13 people, and killed one boy.
Lucky for us, we know how to protect ourselves against anthrax, and an outbreak is unlikely or easily extinguished. However what else lies within the permafrost?
Scientists have been exploring frozen disease-cells for the past few decades. Five ancient virus have been discovered and studied since 2003. These viruses have been frozen for an estimated 30,000 year and have proven to have a few particles that are still infectious. However, they must come in contact with a vulnerable host in order to actually infect them.
The viruses that have currently been revived from the dead, are not ones contagious to humans, rather single-cell amoeba, so there is no real danger from this.
As the Ice Caps continue to melt at an alarming rate, there are a variety of ancient viruses held in the permafrost that may be released. It is unlikely that these viruses would have the ability to infect humans and spread because of the uninhabitable regions they would be released in. What is of greater concern are mosquitos and other insects. As the earth warms, insects like mosquitos will begin to inhabit areas that they’ve never had access to before. Because of their ability to carry a pathogenic virus, these insects may very well spread the ancient viruses for us.
Humans have always been looking for ways to overcome sicknesses and diseases. We have continuously developed different antibiotics to fight off the most prevailing illnesses. Alexander Flemming’s discovery of Penicillin began the never-ending discovery to new antibiotics and illness-resistant drugs.
However, diseases are smart. They too have spent the last century building up antibody resistance in order to surpass our antibiotics. We have put ourselves into a never ending battle with bacteria.