Saturday, May 6, 2017

Melting Permafrost Unleashing Killer Bacteria and Viruses: Climate Change Heats Up

As the Northern climes warm, our species may soon be vulnerable to ancient—even beyond ancient— bacteria and viruses. We are familiar with pathogens to which our species has some immunity, built up from repeated prior contact. As a species, we could lose everything from illnesses in which the modern human body has no experience and thus no built-up defenses.

Researches have encountered complex ancient viruses in the melting permafrost of Siberia. Bacteria and viruses can lie dormant in permafrost until they are reactivated by warming. Scientists have discovered intact Spanish flu viruses in corpses buried in 1918 in the Alaskan tundra. In 2016 in Siberia, 100 people and 2,300 reindeer were infected with anthrax that scientist believe had been trapped in a frozen reindeer carcass that thawed during the particularly hot summer. Unfortunately, permafrost “appears to the among the systems most vulnerable to global warming,” according to researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change.[1] Global warming in turn is vulnerable to the human production of carbon dioxide, such as from our increasing use of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. Behind the economics of use or consumption is the exponential increase in the population of our species. As biological beings, we must consume. Generally speaking, the more humans around, the higher the total consumption. Distribution of resources obviously makes a difference—some people get to consume disproportionately more than others can. Even so, the staggering number of over 7 billion people must involve a considerable amount of consumption.

The extraordinary jump in human population is occurring in a very short period of time. How could there not be huge, unforeseen reverberations? 

The upshot is that Nature has its own measures to correct a species’ failure to control its numbers on a planet of finite resources. As great as the human mind is, we have trouble anticipating the secondary systems that are set in motion. Put another way, the astonishing number of 7 billion can be expected to have repercussions that get beyond our ability to anticipate, let alone manage. As permafrost that has been frozen for millennia (also a big number) melts and the methane and bacteria and viruses that have been trapped escape, we face a huge blindside. As systems effect systems effect systems, we can easily get ahead of ourselves.

[1] Mary Papenfuss, “As Ice Melts, Dangerous Diseases From The Past Could Rise Again,” The Huffington Post, May 5, 2017.