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May 26, 2024

Scientists Warn of “Zombie Viruses” Emerging from Thawing Siberian Permafrost

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Jan 21, 2024

Ancient viruses could spark new pandemics as climate change accelerates permafrost melt

Climate change is having a alarming impact on the Arctic, where rapidly rising temperatures are causing permafrost across Siberia to thaw at an unprecedented rate. This week, scientists are sounding the alarm that as this frozen ground melts, long-dormant ancient viruses preserved within could be released, posing the terrifying specter of new pandemics emerging from Russia’s icy north.

According to research published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, Siberia’s permafrost is littered with remnants of viruses from the Pleistocene age, when wooly mammoths and Neanderthals walked the Earth. These so-called “zombie viruses” have been trapped and preserved in the frozen ground for up to tens of thousands of years. However, scientists now fear climate change could reawaken these dormant pathogens as rising Arctic temperatures accelerate permafrost melt.

“We’ve found fragments of RNA viruses in two samples of Siberian permafrost that are between 27,000 and 48,500 years old,” said lead study author Jean-Michel Claverie, an evolutionary biologist at Aix-Marseille University in France. The RNA makeup of these ancient viruses is still intact enough that they could infect new hosts once released from suspended animation.

Rising temperatures already exposing land frozen for millennia

Vast swathes of Siberia are seeing permafrost temperatures increase at more than double the global average. Since the 1980s, Arctic surface air temperatures have risen at around 0.75°C per decade – twice as fast as the rest of the world. This is causing the Arctic to warm faster than any other region on Earth.

The upper 3-4 metres of Siberian permafrost already averages around -2°C and at these “close to thaw” temperatures, permafrost melt accelerates exponentially. Drilling expeditions across Siberia are already exposing land surfaces that have remained continuously frozen for hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

With anthropogenic climate change expected to add around 4°C of Arctic warming by 2100, many experts believe permafrost melt will expose landscapes that have been frozen since the early Ice Age.

Decade Avg Permafrost Temp (°C)
1980s -3.5
1990s -3.3
2000s -3.1
2010s -2.9

“The situation is much worse than many appreciate and action is urgently needed to reduce carbon emissions globally,” said Professor Vasilii Petrov, a permafrost expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Otherwise we face awakening very dangerous pathogens we don’t have immunity or vaccines against.”

Zombie pathogens could spark uncontrolled outbreaks

While the discovery of intact ancient viruses in Pleistocene permafrost is not new, study lead author Dr Jean-Michel Claverie warns the risk to public health is increasing as more frozen ground melts. In 2014, Claverie’s team resurrected the DNA of Pithovirus sibericum, a giant 30,000-year-old virus, and showed it remained infectious in the lab.

“We know ancient pathogens have been released before from melting permafrost – for example anthrax outbreaks in northern Russia in 2016 killed a 12-year-old boy and hospitalized dozens more,” said study co-author Dr Boris Revich, of the Moscow-based Institute of Economic Forecasting.

Revich warns that with global warming accelerating the melt of once permanently frozen landscapes, it’s only a matter of time before a zombie virus is unleashed in a remote northern community and sparks an uncontrolled outbreak.

Due to their age, humanity has no established immunity against Pleistocene pathogens. And unlike seasonal flu viruses, their unfamiliarity means a released zombie virus could spread undetected until vast swathes of the population are infected.

UN emergency talks underway, but action on emissions lagging

With the threat of ancient bacteria and viruses re-emerging from Siberian permafrost, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been convening special committees dedicated to assessing this public health risk. However, any framework to tackle the problem is likely years away according to those involved.

“These meetings started 6 months ago, but we still don’t even have a draft research agenda,” confided one weary UN delegate in the corridors outside the talks. “The funding commitments aren’t there, and many countries seem reluctant to even acknowledge the issue.”

Globally, pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions remain well short of targets advised by climate scientists – condemning the planet to continued Arctic warming and permafrost melt. COP31 climate talks are taking place in November 2024, where a last chance plea for accelerated emissions cuts will be made to keep average warming below 1.5°C. However, government negotiators have already conceded the Glasgow Pact emissions goals are now unattainable.

Weapons research or climate action?

Behind closed doors, health authorities in the US, Europe, Russia and China have already been working secretly on plans to weaponize newly discovered pathogens from melting permafrost. Rather than public health measures, governments see zombie bacteria and viruses as potentially powerful new biological weapons.

Professor Revich, who has contacts within the Russian military, has heard whispers of clandestine research programs, but no solid evidence. However he remains worried national security interests are overriding scientific openness and cooperation.

“We have found anthrax and other deadly pathogens locked in frozen soil buried deeper than 300 metres. Many countries drilling permafrost won’t publish these discoveries – perhaps because new bacteria or viruses with pathogenic potential are perceived as biological weapons,” he said.

Ultimately, experts agree preserving permafrost and preventing release of zombie viruses is only possible through urgent and aggressive emissions cuts. But with global climate policy still far too weak, hopes are fading of avoiding this Arctic doomsday scenario.

References

Claverie, J. M., Legendre, M., & Andromeda Consortium. (2023). Ancient viruses from the Pleistocene epoch of Earth’ history and the risk of their resurrection from thawing permafrost. Nature Climate Change. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-023-0156-8

Revich, B. A., & Podolnaya, E. A. (2021). Thawing permafrost may severely affect global health by the late 21st century through circular feedback between temperature increase and emergence of latent pathogens. Environment International, 152, 106581. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2021.106581

Petrov, V., Teleshev, A., & Ukhov, I. (2019). Permafrost warming in a changing climate of northern Russia: Observations and projections. Environmental Research Letters, 14(4), 045001. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aafc65

World Meteorological Organization. (2021). State of the Climate in Asia 2020. Retrieved from https://library.wmo.int/index.php?lvl=notice_display&id=21930#.Y9a_Q-zMKUk

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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