Ancient Diseases Released By Rapid Permafrost Meltdown Threaten Europe

“Another” scientist has warned about ancient diseases released by melting permafrost in the Arctic Circle and the potential harm that could result. Adding to the list of scientists warning that climate change will spark a resurgence of ancient diseases, Dr Vladimir Romanovsky from the University of Alaska has now included smallpox, zika virus, and dengue, as conditions in the northern hemisphere become warmer and provide expanding livable habitats for the yellow fever mosquito that spreads all these diseases. Ancient diseases released by melting permafrost could cause new pandemics.

The Accelerating Arctic Permafrost Melt Is Well Documented

If you’ve been awake over the last decade you might already be sick of reading headlines about the threat of ancient diseases released by climate change in the planet’s Arctic region. For example, this BBC article explains how long-dormant bacteria and viruses, trapped in ice and permafrost for centuries are springing back to life as the Earth’s climate warms. This BBC article came soon after Scientific American published a story in August 2016 about an incident in a remote corner of Siberian Yamal Peninsula where twenty people were hospitalized and a 12-year-old boy died after being infected by anthrax. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , permafrost in the northern hemisphere will have “a 25 percent decrease by 2100.”

Arctic tundra melting in late June in northern Russia and ever year the melting begins earlier and expands further. (GRID-Arendal / CC SA-BY 2.0)

According to Birgitta Evengard, from Sweden’s Umea University , “ignorance is a major concerning problem.” The doctor explained that in July 2020 a 30-square-mile (77-square-kilometer) section of ice broke off the Milne Ice Shelf , which she says was the “last remaining ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic that was fully intact.” As the permafrost thaws as a result of global warming, microorganisms trapped in soil particles begin to thrive again and are released into the environment.

Global Warming Is a One-way Street to More Diseases

Genomics professor Jean-Michel Claverie from Aix-Marseille University explained that scientists have now been able to revive “ancient Siberian viruses from over 30,000 years ago” and he also said these microorganisms had once attacked Neanderthals, mammoth and other ancient populations. Dr Claverie warns that there may be “a resurgence of anthrax, smallpox and influenza” that have been frozen in permafrost for hundreds of years, as was evident in the shocking 2016 anthrax death cited above.

Furthermore, global warming will also allow mosquito populations to thrive in northern parts of Europe. Jeanne Fair from the Los Alamos National Laboratory told Science Times that mosquitoes are now able to overwinter in some temperate regions and that the species, Aedes aegypti, carries “dengue, zika, malaria, and eastern equine encephalitis diseases.”

The yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, loves your blood and is expanding its year-round territory further and further north as global warming intensifies. (James Gathany / Public domain )

Another threat from melting permafrost occurred in July 2014 when images circulated around the media of an enormous crater that appeared in the Siberian tundra that was suspected to have been an underground buildup of methane gas that had been released as the permafrost thawed. Climate scientist Sue Natali of the Woods Hole Research Center said “It’s not something that any Arctic scientists talk about, to have land explode because of a build-up of methane below the ground, and it still surprises me now.”

Ignorance Is Not Bliss When Ancient Diseases Reappear

Two days after the Siberian methane crater appeared in 2014 my agent was contacted by History Channel . And two weeks later I was in a production meeting in Los Angeles assembling a new science show looking at the projected effects of climate change and how it might affect human populations through mass-migration and “the release of ancient diseases.” For this show I interviewed Dr Alan Robock a highly-distinguished professor of climate science in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University who is a world-leading geoengineer on the climatic effects of nuclear war, volcanic eruptions, and soil moisture. To add to his authority, he has been a member of scientific teams that have won Nobel Peace Prizes.

Dr Alan Robock helped us set up a dangerous scientific experiment in the Californian desert at the Salton Sea that included 100 film crew members, two fire engines, an ambulance, and a movie stunt crew. Together, we set up a wooden box representing a section of permafrost and filled it with two tons (4,480 pounds) of soil, which we froze with liquid nitrogen before pumping 20 lbs (9 kg) of methane gas into the frozen soil. Then, “Action” and BOOM. That explosion sent shockwaves across the desert using only 20 lbs of methane. Dr Robock estimates that “600,000,000,000 tons,” yes we wrote that right, “six-hundred-billion tons,” of green-house gases are locked in the permafrost and beginning to thaw out now!

Since 2014, when I personally witnessed ground-zero in a reconstructed climate change event, it has saddened me that so little is being done to prevent the escalation of such explosions. And today, I am equally as concerned that a death in 2014 from an ancient anthrax virus has had almost no effect on how we live, or what we are doing to combat the release of these once-frozen microbial killers.

With so little having been done, one day, very soon, these ancient spores might be ejected into the skies of the northern hemisphere. And when they drift southwards and settle in Europe the death toll will make Covid-19 seem like a bad cold. If we are struggling to create a vaccine for a two-year old virus, what chance do we have with a 30,000-year old strain of anthrax?

Top image: In this photo you can see a collapsed block of ice-rich permafrost along Drew Point, Alaska. Ancient diseases released from such rapid change pose a dire threat to 21st-century human populations.            Source: Benjamin Jones, U.S. Geological Survey / Public domain

By Ashley Cowie

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