Humans have fought viruses for centuries. We struck a temporary winning blow with the discovery of penicillin, but now we’re watching bacteria develop antibiotic resistance. But what if we were exposed to viruses that have been dormant for millennia? As climate change melts permafrost, the frozen soil could suddenly release ancient, deadly bacteria and viruses that humanity hasn’t had to deal with for thousands of years.


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2016 saw a case of an illness trapped inside ice being released to harm people. A 12-year-old boy died and around 20 people were hospitalized with anthrax in August 2016 in the Siberian tundra. Researchers think the anthrax came from a reindeer that died more than 75 years ago and was trapped under permafrost, but when that permafrost thawed in a 2016 heat wave, the anthrax was released. And researchers fear this may not be the last time such an event occurs.

Related: Dramatic disintegration of Canada permafrost threatens huge carbon release

Jean-Michel Claverie, an evolutionary biologist at France’s Aix-Marseille University, told the BBC, “Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark. 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.”

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Over a million reindeer perished due to anthrax in the early 20th century. Most of their carcasses rest near the surface in 7,000 burial grounds in Russia. But even more than the anthrax, researchers fear other diseases that might be lurking in the permafrost.

Scientists found pieces of RNA from the Spanish flu in bodies buried in the Alaskan tundra in mass graves. They think the bubonic plague and smallpox could hide in Siberian permafrost.

But some bacteria won’t come back to life. So some people argue we should be more concerned about threats we know for sure climate change will unleash. Claverie says there’s a non-zero probability dormant microbes could come back to life and harm us. He told the BBC, “How likely that is is not known, but it’s a possibility. It could be bacteria that are curable with antibiotics, or resistant bacteria, or a virus. If the pathogen hasn’t been in contact with humans for a long time, then our immune system would not be prepared.”

Via the BBC

Images via NPS Climate Change Response on Flickr and Pixabay