why melting permafrost could mean more disease

Another scary side-effect of global warming may be the resurrection of ancient viruses from melting permafrost.

snow melt

As the jokes about global warming go, since humans like warm weather, what’s so bad about a little melting permafrost and new beachfront properties after the seas rise? Well, aside from the aftermath of ocean acidification and its impact on marine life we eat, as well as the rising costs of adapting to the swelling tides, and replacing the infrastructure that will be damaged by thaws in the previously solid permafrost layers, there’s also the threat of disease. And not just any old chest cold or flu we’re used to, but viruses tens of thousands of years old which were menacing our cave-dwelling ancestors before ending up in suspended animation. While so far only mild or benign viruses have been found in permafrost samples, the researchers are worried that there are good reasons to suspect various strains of plague or even smallpox are hiding under snow and ice, and will thaw back to life to infect a population which considers them long gone, with a bare minimum of natural immunity to their full ravages, and plenty of perfectly viable hosts.

Now, I know, this sounds like the opening act of a low budget sci-fi movie where some terrifying ancient virus shown in the prologue as annihilating an entire civilization, Atlantis perhaps, thaws as permafrost since the last Ice Age is disturbed by a construction crew with dire consequences and it’s up to an aspiring underwear model of a scientist called by a chiseled president who may be the scientist’s old friend to hunt down the anti-body producing McGuffin in some exotic parts of the world which fails to work, and then improvise a cure at the last possible minute as his kid or love interest is about to die of the disease. If you’re reading this post from a Hollywood studio office, drop me a line, let’s do lunch. But I digress. As unlikely as this scenario is, the odds of an old human-infecting bugaboo for which we may not have effective medication on hand stirred to life as the world warms is not zero, and we may want to start looking back into the viruses’ past to identify and design possible treatments ahead of time. If we don’t, millions might suffer.

Just consider what would happen should an ancient strain of smallpox return. Before worldwide vaccination campaigns, it was the greatest killer of our humble little species for 10,000 years, a culprit behind a third of all blindness, the main contributor to child mortality, and while we fought it off over the last century, it still managed to kill as many as 300 million of us. Before vaccines, the virus traveled across the Atlantic with Europeans, wiping out 90% of Native Americans while the first New World colonies were being established. Today we do have antiviral treatments we think should be able to subdue advanced cases, and post-infection vaccinations would help the patients recover, but this assumes that we’d be fighting the product of trillions of generations of coexistence with humans. A thawed strain could be so radically different by comparison, it may as well be from another planet, which could make it benign to us, or even deadlier. And as we’ll continue warming the planet with wild abandon, we might live to experience this in real life…

# science // climate change / epidemiology / evolution / global warming


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