Presently, as we grapple with the pandemic called Covid-19, scientists are suspecting that more such microscopic organisms are being released from the thawing ice caps. Experts dub this a potential “permafrost pandemic”.
The Arctic has been recently recording temperatures higher than some countries like the UK. Data from satellites monitoring the area indicate that temperatures on the surface are reaching an alarming 45C. The heatwave is unprecedented, to say the least. But that is not the only alarming factor.
In climate change’s tale, the Arctic has a significant role. It is heating up two times as quickly as everywhere else. And, anything that happens there will have consequences everywhere else. Sea levels rising? The ice melting is the cause. Climate change accelerating? The melting permafrost is releasing all the stored carbon and methane.
However, the permafrost releasing diseases has not been studied too much. It is comparatively new. But now, the wider community of science is trying to find out how long a microbe can stay alive in those conditions, and turn into a permafrost pandemic.
In November 2019, top scientists related to the topic came together in Germany’s Hannover to discuss this impending threat of a permafrost pandemic.
The Disappearing Permafrost
Dr. Vladimir Romanovsky was the first to speak at the meeting. He is a permafrost expert and a Geophysics Professor at the Alaska Fairbanks University.
The permafrost is earth material that has a temperature under 0C for at least 2 consecutive years. This ‘earth material’ can be different types of soil to sand and gravel. Glacier ice and sea ice are not usually considered permafrost by scientists.
Dr. Vladimir repeatedly stated that permafrost only thaws, and not melts. The ice in the dirt melts to leave behind the earth. But the earth and everything in it remains intact. Thawing can release an enormous amount of greenhouse gases like methane and CO2.
Dr. Romanovsky explains that the upper half meter of permafrost is experiencing a significant change. In the previous one or two decades, things that have been frozen for a thousand years and more are being set free gradually. This includes any bacteria or viruses that can cause a permafrost pandemic
However, not much has thawed, says Dr. Romanovsky, since it is just beginning. However, he warns that the pace will only quicken if steps are not taken.
The layer on top of the permafrost is known as the talik. This layer is usually not frozen. A microbe does not have to be released to get there. If this layer grows in size and activity, the increased unfrozen water may be enough for biological processes to begin.
The microbes, detecting this potential habitat, might start actively moving towards it to avoid being frozen again. Dr. Jean Michel Claverie, a virologist with the University of Aix-Marseille, explained that everyone knows bacteria can live for an extremely long period. But no one knows how long exactly which would be a clue to any permafrost pandemic.
He also points out that there is sufficient research on bacteria that can be revived from deep permafrost. In fact, Dr. Clavarie along with his wife Dr. Abergel is already working on figuring it out. They are yet to reach 30,000 years, however.
The Potential Life Of A Permanent Pandemic
Unfortunately, scientists are not certain about which microbes can be a permafrost pandemic. Abergel and Claverie say that DNA viruses are the most possible threats. They are much more likely to appear from the permafrost because of their chemical robustness.
The most alarming DNA viruses that can come back are Anthrax and Smallpox. Moreover, these permafrost pandemics can be resistant to antibiotics as well, according to Dr. Brigitta Evengard.
However, there is one more factor for it. Any such viruses need a host to truly spread. Now the Arctic is not a place where there is a dense human population. But! Then Dr. Clavarie pointed out that Russian expeditions are stepping up exploitation of the Arctic region. Moreover, animals migrating because of climate change like hare and moose.
She added that the Covid-19 pandemic is a prime example of what can come. She called it nature’s warning and she is certain it will happen repeatedly.