Scientists are sounding the alarm about the dangers of ancient viruses trapped in Arctic permafrost being released due to climate change. As rising temperatures cause the frozen ground to thaw, these “zombie viruses” – some tens of thousands of years old – may come back to life and spark dangerous new outbreaks.
Discovery of Live Viruses Sparks Fears
Researchers from France’s Aix-Marseille University recently announced the revival of a 48,500-year-old giant virus they found in Siberian permafrost. Though the Pandoravirus yedoma is harmless to humans, the fact that it could be revived after being frozen for so long raises worries that dangerous pathogens could also re-emerge as more permafrost thaws.
“It’s a scenario straight out of a horror film,” said scientist Jean-Michel Claverie. “Viruses that we thought were eradicated from Earth might still be out there, frozen – and as the planet gets warmer, they get released again.”
Permafrost covers about 15 million square kilometers of the Northern Hemisphere – over 4 times the area of the contiguous United States. It acts like a giant freezer, keeping microbes dormant for thousands of years. But as higher temperatures penetrate deeper into frozen soil, they could reactivate viruses that have laid dormant since prehistoric eras.
Concerns Over Past Outbreaks
Scientists point to precedent of earlier outbreaks sparked by thawing permafrost. In 2016, an anthrax outbreak killed 2,300 reindeer in Siberia and hospitalized 96 people. The most likely culprit was thawed-out bacteria that had been frozen for over 75 years.
Smallpox viruses have also been discovered in Siberian corpses that froze before burial. Though routine vaccination eradicated smallpox decades ago, the virus remains dangerous even when dead. In one famous case, a 40-year old sacrifice victim found in Greenland had strains similar to viruses that erupted in the 20th century.
“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses – because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark,” said Dr Jean-Michel Claverie, an expert in viruses at Aix-Marseille University.
Climate Change Driving Permafrost Thaw
Rising Arctic temperatures are of special concern, since they are warming over twice as fast as rest of the planet. Siberia saw its hottest year on record in 2020, contributing to severe wildfires and accelerated permafrost melt.
|Est. Loss of Near-Surface Permafrost
Thawing permafrost is already wreaking havoc on Arctic infrastructure, causing roads and buildings to slump, collapse and be abandoned. Meanwhile, methane and carbon emissions released from decomposing ancient plants and animals are accelerating global warming even further.
Calls for Urgent Action
Experts are urging policymakers to take the risks of thawed-out pathogens seriously given their pandemic potential.
It is “a tangible threat to human and animal health as the warming uncovers landscapes untouched for hundreds of thousands to millions of years,” stated sci-tech news site BNN.
Top scientists convened a World Health Organization panel last month to assess the dangers and develop risk-reduction strategies. Recommendations included:
Establish an international permafrost virome monitoring program
Mandate sequencing of all new viruses to identify emergent strains
Stockpile vaccines and antivirals against likely candidates
Tighten controls around mining and drilling to minimize exposure
However, some argue such measures may be too little, too late given the inertia already built into the climate system. With over 15 trillion tons of carbon frozen in permafrost – double the amount already in the atmosphere – runaway warming and pathogens re-emerging may be unavoidable.
“Once you put the genie back in the bottle, how many times can you do it before there’s a catastrophe?” asked evolutionary biologist Dr Jean-Michel Claverie.
Only rapidly decarbonizing the global economy and reversing Arctic amplification may prevent this scary scenario of apocalyptic contagions. But international commitments continue falling short, meaning we must brace for more ominous warnings from ancient microbes unpredictably returning to haunt the living.
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