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Climate Change’s Potential to Instigate Ancient Diseases

by | July 17, 2019

In a time when the world is already struggling with a lot on its plate, the idea of ancient microbes reemerging sounds spine-chilling! What does this even mean? Unfortunately, it is absolutely as it sounds- once active viruses and bacteria, trapped under the blanket of time and permafrost, are now potentially prone to bouncing back to life. This is attributed to climate change causing the layers of permafrost to melt.

Climate Change Potential to Instigate Ancient Diseases From Ages of Slumber
Credits: 24Novembers/ Shutterstock

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Climate Change’s Potential to Instigate Ancient Diseases

The bane of changing climate could potentially wreak havoc to an extent this generation might not be equipped to combat. Certainly situations such as pollution and global warming are quite daunting, but the reemergence of ancient diseases is a catastrophic biological hazard.

A BBC article reported a number of horrifying potentials, where deadly microbes lying dormant for centuries could spring back to life. This event owing to climate change melting permafrost layers (frozen soil for thousands of years). These layers of frozen soil contain viruses and bacteria, which have been inactive for thousands of years, and are now prone to reviving with the melting of ice. This means humans will be vulnerable in a chance encounter with viruses our body’s immune system is not prepared for.

According to BBC, four years back a 12-year-old boy died of Anthrax in the Arctic Circle. Twenty people were also hospitalized for the same virus. As per the theory regarding the cause of the outbreak, more than 75 years ago a reindeer infected by Anthrax died and its carcass was gradually trapped under the permafrost layers. The body of the deer remained frozen until the summer of 2016 when a heatwave thawed the ice, releasing the infected corpse, thereby releasing the deadly virus. Huge numbers of reindeer were infected along with a few human cases. However, scientists are worried the case might not be the last one in our history. Due to global warming, the permafrost layers are melting faster, and are below the normal limits, gradually exposing older layers.  

With the temperature on the Arctic Circle reportedly spiking three times higher than other places on Earth, the threat of awakening ancient viruses and bacteria looms, the BBC reports. What is most worrisome is the chance the viruses might be the same which had caused deadly epidemics long ago; those which history remembers in lamenting narration.

“As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th Centuries may come back,” stated Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya in a study, adding, “especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”

NASA scientists successfully revived bacteria from 3200 years ago in a frozen pond in Alaska – dating back to the time when the Wooly Mammoth roamed the Earth. Scientists have also revived ‘8-million-year-old bacterium’ from valleys in Antarctica.

According to BBC, regarding the practical possibility of such an instance as discussed above, Jean-Michel Claverie, the lead author of a 2014 study, said “Following our work and that of others, there is now a non-zero probability that pathogenic microbes could be revived, and infect us.

“How likely that is not known, but it’s a possibility. If the pathogen hasn’t been in contact with humans for a long time, then our immune system would not be prepared. So yes, that could be dangerous.”

What do you think about the possibility of such an instance brought about by climate change? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. 

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Debayan Paul

Digital Writer | West Bengal, India | [email protected]

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