Quantcast
Popular
Staffan Widstrand

Melting Ice Could Unleash Deadly Bacteria Lain Dormant for Millennia

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.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Climate
U.S. Army member helps clear debris from Tyndall Air Force Base following Hurricane Michael. U.S. Army

Pentagon: Climate Change is Real and a 'National Security Issue'

The Pentagon released a Congressionally mandated report (pdf) that warns flooding, drought and wildfires and other effects of climate change puts U.S. military bases at risk.

The 22-page analysis states plainly: "The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense (DoD or the Department) missions, operational plans, and installations."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Protesters interrupt the confirmation hearing for Andrew Wheeler on Capitol Hill Jan. 16 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

5 People Calling Out EPA Acting Head Wheeler for Putting Polluters First

This week, people across the country are joining environmental leaders to speak out against the nomination of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to lead the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As Scott Pruitt's hand-picked successor, Wheeler has continued to put polluters over people, most recently by using the last of his agency's funding before it expired in the government shutdown to announce plans to allow power plants to spew toxic mercury and other hazardous pollution into the air.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Great white shark. Elias Levy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Marine Biologists Raise Flags About Viral Great White Shark Encounter

By now you might have seen Ocean Ramsey's rare and jaw-dropping encounter with a great white shark in waters near Oahu, Hawaii.

Ramsey, a marine biologist, said on the TODAY Show that it was "absolutely breathtaking and heart-melting" to be approached by the massive marine mammal.

Keep reading... Show less
A tree found severed in half in an act of vandalism in Joshua Tree National Park. Gina Ferazzi / Los AngelesTimes / Getty Images

Wall Before Country Takes Mounting Toll on Americans Everywhere

By Rhea Suh

One month on, the longest and most senseless U.S. government shutdown in history is taking a grave and growing toll on the environment and public health.

Food inspectors have been idled or are working without pay, increasing the risk we'll get sick from eating produce, meat and poultry that isn't properly checked. National parks and public wilderness lands are overrun by vandals, overtaken by off-road joyriders, and overflowing with trash. Federal testing of air and water quality, as well as monitoring of pollution levels from factories, incinerators and other sources, is on hold or sharply curtailed. Citizen input on critical environmental issues is being hindered. Vital research and data collection are being sidelined.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
The W. A. Parish Power Plant, owned by NRG Energy, is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Roy Luck / CC BY 2.0

All Coal-Fired Power Plants in Texas Found Leaking Toxins Into Groundwater

Power plants across Texas are leaching toxins into groundwater, according to new research. A report released this week from the Environmental Integrity Project found that all of the state's 16 coal-fired power plants are leaching contaminants from coal ash into the ground, and almost none of the plants are properly lining their pits to prevent leakage.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. NPS

MLK National Park to Re-Open Despite Shutdown, Thanks to Delta

Hats off to Delta Air Lines. The company's charitable arm awarded the National Park Service an $83,500 grant to help reopen the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta from Jan. 19 through Feb. 3 in honor of Dr. King's legacy.

The Atlanta-based airline was inspired to act after learning that some of the park's sites, including Dr. King's birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Fire Station No. 6 and the visitor center, were closed due to the partial government shutdown, now on its 28th day, according to LinkedIn post from Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
Chris So / Toronto Star / Getty Images

Nebraska Lawmakers Want to Ban the Word 'Meat' From Vegetarian Substitutes

By Dan Nosowitz

Nebraska is the country's second-leading producer of beef, and is in the top ten of pork producers.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
A northern cardinal and finch in the snow. Mark Moschell / Flickr

Is Winter Miserable for Wildlife?

By Bridget B. Baker

While the weather outside may indeed get frightful this winter, a parka, knit hat, wool socks, insulated boots and maybe a roaring fire make things bearable for people who live in cold climates. But what about all the wildlife out there? Won't they be freezing?

Anyone who's walked their dog when temperatures are frigid knows that canines will shiver and favor a cold paw—which partly explains the boom in the pet clothing industry. But chipmunks and cardinals don't get fashionable coats or booties.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!