Death By Ice Melt

When fretting over the future effects of climate change, one may be worrying about just how hot it will get, how many coastal cities and islands will be lost to rising oceans or the massive loss of life through drought and famine. But what about mystery diseases? Yep. Add one more thing to your climate change related anxiety list. Mystery diseases.

You see, frozen in the Arctic and Antarctic tundra and ice sheets are pathogens that have been imprisoned for more than a millennia. And climate change is going to bring about the big thaw that will set them free. Many of them have never before been encountered by modern man. Remember what happened when Europeans introduced strange pathogens to indigenous peoples in their invasive travels? Yeah, without natural resistance, those native populations were decimated with disease.

So what exactly is lurking in the permafrost and ice?

–   Example:   August, 2016, remote Siberian tundra region of the Yamal Peninsula, a 12-year-old boy dies and 20 other people hospitalized with anthrax infections.

Now, a conspiracy theorist would point the finger at the Russian government, accusing it of using these poor folk as guinea pigs in bio-terror weapons research. The reality is, as determined by medical researchers, that the anthrax was a 75-year-old reindeer strain.

A quarter of a century ago the dead reindeer were covered with permafrost where they died. The heatwave that occurred in the area in 2016 exposed the contaminated corpses. The soil was then contaminated, thus the grassland being currently grazed upon was contaminated as well. The pathogens also washed into natural water supplies during periods of rainfall.

Final result? About 2,000 head of local reindeer grazed on the infected grassland. They, in turn, infected their human herds-people. This is the future of mystery disease due to climate change. Especially since there are more than a million reindeer carcasses infected with anthrax in Arctic regions that are buried close to the surface because you can’t dig deep graves in frozen ground.

In addition to anthrax, scientists also suspect strange varieties of influenza will be released. In Alaska, there have been discovered intact viruses of Spanish flu dating back to 1918. What else might be buried in shallow graves in frozen ground around the world? Corpses infected with active strains of smallpox and bubonic plague.

One Siberian town has a mass grave containing about 40% of its population that died in a smallpox epidemic in the 1890s. Already the permafrost layer is melting and washing away. Not only will this lead to contamination in the old town’s immediate area but any part of civilization the waters of the nearby Kolyma River contact will also be in danger of infection.

And pathogens can live longer than a couple of hundred years. Back in 2005 NASA researchers were successful in resurrecting bacteria removed from a frozen Alaskan pond. The microbes were 32,000 years old.

In 2007 scientists brought back to life bacteria that was 8 million years old and another sample that was 100,000 years old. They retrieved them from a glacier in Antarctica.
But do they have the strength to be virulent after a period of dormancy that long? For the answer, just refer to the findings of French evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix Marseille University. In 2014 Claverie resurrected two viruses from Siberia’s permafrost that were 30,000 years old. Once alive again, they quickly took on infectious status. Claverie’s conclusion:

“… these ancient layers could be exposed… If viable virions are still there, this could spell disaster.”

The most dangerous virions are called  “giant viruses”. These are the ones that can survive being buried in ice, dormant for eons, and become active again. It’s because, unlike a regular virus, a giant virus has a tough genetic make-up that can survive outside a host cell. Think of it like the virus having a protective shield around its DNA that prevents biochemical degradation.

And it gets worse. It’s not just ice melt we modern day humans have to worry about. Crystals, as old as 50,000 years, dug out of a Mexican mine were found to harbor microbial bacteria, a bacteria that has not seen the surface of the earth for over 4 million years. Studies have determined that this particular bacteria is resistant to 70% of current commonly used antibiotics. Great. The gringa says, “Stop all that digging!”

How does a super-bacteria like that come about? Well, there’s not much for it to eat in a cave, isolated from water, light, etc. To survive, an organism has to be ruthless in competition with other organisms for whatever means are available for nutrition.

What the heck is being done about this? Well, the gringa would like to provide some measure of relief. This all means that the diseases that riddled Neanderthals, our ancestors, may all come back to haunt us. But thanks to scientists like Claverie the diseases our ancient ancestors suffered from are being discovered and vaccines are being created.




Image Credit: BBC

Video Credit: Seeker