An ancient plague, frozen beneath the arctic ice for millennia, is suddenly released as the ice around it thaws. The disease makes its ways to civilization, killing billions and bringing civilization to a screeching halt.
It sounds like science fiction. But as climate change accelerates, long-dormant pathogens and bacteria could awaken and wreak havoc across the world.
Bacteria are resilient. Some, ensconced in permafrost, may be able to stay alive for up to a million years. Now that the permafrost is thawing – and at a rate much faster than expected – those bacteria will soon be unleashed. Evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University in France explains:
“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark. Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past.”
In 2014, Claverie revived two viruses that had been trapped in permafrost for 30,000 years. While they couldn’t infect humans, the viruses were infectious to single-celled amoebas. More dangerous viruses might be unearthed as the world warms.
Diseases that killed people and animals that were buried in the permafrost pose another threat. In a 2011 study, Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya of the Russian Academy of Sciences wrote:
“As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”
Siberia, for instance, saw a major smallpox outbreak during the 1890s. In one town, about 40 percent of the population died. They were buried on the banks of the Kolyma River. But today, the river’s banks are eroding and the thawing permafrost is accelerating the process.
Unfortunately, deadly diseases aren’t the only problem posed by thawing permafrost. The communities built on permafrost face serious infrastructure challenges as their roads and buildings have begun collapsing. In the early 1990s, thawing permafrost in Siberia opened a massive crater one mile long and 400 feet deep. It’s grown rapidly since.
Permafrost also traps methane, a greenhouse gas with a climate impact 25 times that of carbon dioxide. This methane will soon be released, warming the world even faster and making life on earth all but impossible.
Featured Image: Screenshot Via YouTube Video.