Quantcast

Melting Ice Could Unleash Deadly Bacteria Lain Dormant for Millennia

Popular
Staffan Widstrand

Deep in the soils of permafrost lurks unknown and archaic bacteria that could potentially spawn viruses and disease that the human race has never been exposed to, at least, not in the recent history of penicillin. But with climate change rapidly heating up the poles, the permafrost is melting away, and we may have to face whatever is beneath the ice.


There are few cases of deadly bacteria emerging from the ice, but in one case a 12-year-old boy from Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle died from anthrax poisoning, which was believed to come from a thawed carcass of a reindeer that died 75 years ago after contracting anthrax. As ice melts, it enters bodies of water that are used for drinking water, which is why scientists are worried about unknown disease the ice may be harboring.

"Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark," evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie told BBC. "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."

The biggest concern is that the hosts of disease like bubonic plague, Spanish flu and smallpox are buried very near the surface of the ice.

"As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th Centuries may come back," Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya wrote in a 2011 study, "especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried."

One such burial site is in Siberia, where one town lost 40 percent of its population to smallpox. It's a haunting thought, but the ice is melting in the area where they were buried and it's not impossible that the disease lives beneath the ice.

Scientists have revived dormant bacteria from corpses that are thousands of years old. In 2005, NASA brought to life bacteria that were in a frozen Alaskan pond for 32,000 years. With just a little heat, the ice melted and the bacteria began floating around.

Melting ice isn't the only threat to bringing these microbes back to life. Shipping and offshore drilling could also disrupt these frozen environments.

"At the moment, these regions are deserted and the deep permafrost layers are left alone," Claverie said. "However, these ancient layers could be exposed by the digging involved in mining and drilling operations. If viable virions are still there, this could spell disaster."

The biggest fear is that these bacteria won't be affected by modern-day antibiotics because the medicines weren't designed to tackle that type of bacteria. Essentially, it's possible that we wouldn't be able to keep up with the influx of an emerging bacteria without proper treatments put into place. It would be like starting from scratch.

The risk for such a epidemic is unknown, but it could be anywhere from scarlet fever to your regular seasonal flu. But, there is enough evidence to show that scientists should be giving extra attention to the area of study and putting safeguards in place in the off chance that our next glass of water contains a deadly pathogen.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By George Citroner

The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and the World Health Organization currently recommend either 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (walking, gardening, doing household chores) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise (running, cycling, swimming) every week.

But there's little research looking at the benefits, if any, of exercising less than the 75 minute minimum.

Read More Show Less
Mary Daly, president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, poses for a photograph. Nick Otto / Washington Post / Getty Images

It seems the reality of the climate crisis is too much for the Federal Reserve to ignore anymore.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

Passengers trying to reach Berlin's Tegel Airport on Sunday were hit with delays after police blocked roads and enacted tighter security controls in response to a climate protest.

Read More Show Less
A military police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina, pets Rosco, a post-traumatic stress disorder companion animal certified to accompany him, on Jan. 11, 2014. North Carolina National Guard

For 21 years, Doug Distaso served his country in the United States Air Force.

He commanded joint aviation, maintenance, and support personnel globally and served as a primary legislative affairs lead for two U.S. Special Operations Command leaders.

But after an Air Force plane accident left him with a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain, Distaso was placed on more than a dozen prescription medications by doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Read More Show Less
(L) Selma Three Stone Engagement Ring. (R) The Greener Diamond Farm Project. MiaDonna

By Bailey Hopp

If you had to choose a diamond for your engagement ring from below or above the ground, which would you pick … and why would you pick it? This is the main question consumers are facing when picking out their diamond engagement ring today. With a dramatic increase in demand for conflict-free lab-grown diamonds, the diamond industry is shifting right before our eyes.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Preliminary tests of the bubble barrier have shown it to be capable of ushering 80 percent of the canal's plastic waste to its banks. The Great Bubble Barrier / YouTube screenshot

The scourge of plastic waste that washes up on once-pristine beaches and finds its way into the middle of the ocean often starts on land, is dumped in rivers and canals, and gets carried out to sea. At the current rate, marine plastic is predicted to outweigh all the fish in the seas by 2050, according to Silicon Canals.

Read More Show Less
Man stands on stage at Fort Leonard Wood in the U.S. Brett Sayles / Pexels

Wilson "Woody" Powell served in the Air Force during the Korean war. But in the decades since, he's become staunchly anti-war.

Read More Show Less
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa on Nov. 8. Matt Johnson / CC BY 2.0

By Julia Conley

Joined by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Friday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders held the largest rally of any 2020 Democratic presidential candidate to date in Iowa, drawing more than 2,400 people to Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs.

Read More Show Less