Thursday

Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.

As the Earth warms, more permafrost will melt. Under normal circumstances, superficial permafrost layers about 50cm deep melt every summer. But now global warming is gradually exposing older permafrost layers.

Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time, perhaps as long as a million years. That means melting ice could potentially open a Pandora's box of diseases.

The temperature in the Arctic Circle is rising quickly, about three times faster than in the rest of the world. As the ice and permafrost melt, other infectious agents may be released.

"Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark," says evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France. "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."

scientists managed to revive an 8-million-year-old bacterium that had been lying dormant in ice, beneath the surface of a glacier in the Beacon and Mullins valleys of Antarctica. In the same study, bacteria were also revived from ice that was over 100,000 years old.


What's more, global warming does not have to directly melt permafrost to pose a threat. Because the Arctic sea ice is melting, the north shore of Siberia has become more easily accessible by sea. As a result, industrial exploitation, including mining for gold and minerals, and drilling for oil and natural gas, is now becoming profitable.

"At the moment, these regions are deserted and the deep permafrost layers are left alone," says Claverie. "However, these ancient layers could be exposed by the digging involved in mining and drilling operations. If viable virions are still there, this could spell disaster."

Claverie says viruses from the very first humans to populate the Arctic could emerge. We could even see viruses from long-extinct hominin species like Neanderthals and Denisovans, both of which settled in Siberia and were riddled with various viral diseases. Remains of Neanderthals from 30-40,000 years ago have been spotted in Russia. Human populations have lived there, sickened and died for thousands of years.
Source
Permafrost tundra in Siberia (Credit: Staffan Widstrand/naturepl.com)

Responses to "Scientists warn arctic people: Diseases from millions of years ago are awakening because of melting ice"

  1. That is very terrifying. These diseases could wipe out our Civilization. The People of the North are probably going to be the worst hit as they don't have any immune system built up. This is just the tip of the iceberg so to speak. With the winds so strong there & circulating the Earth we could be eliminated like the in the beginning of time. I pray this doesn't happen. thank you for reporting this.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Humm, makes me wonder how in the hell did we make it this far in the vast cold north for thousands of years when the first people came to the arctic. And that there are no known deaths from viruses that had accured only from starvation.

Write a comment

Stats

Archives

Pages