What are viruses?
Viruses are microscopic organisms that require hosts such as plants, bacteria and animals. A virus is typically 20 nanometres to 400 nanometres in diameter. Like all other organisms, a virus is made up of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) or RNA (Ribonucleic acid) but is surrounded by a defensive coat called a “capsid”. Some viruses may also be covered by a second coat called an “envelope” that produces spikes. According to the ISRRT, when a virus invades a host, it gains access to cells and uses the machinery within as a factory to begin manufacturing copies of itself. Once this begins, the newly-formed viruses invade other cells to replicate the same process.
What is permafrost?
Permafrost is a layer of the earth that remains below freezing temperature for at least two years or more. During the warmer months, soil on the surface will soften while the permafrost below remains firm and ungiving. Permafrost is most commonly located in the northern hemisphere around the artic with tall mountains and high altitudes. Experts predict that a 3-degree Celsius (37 degrees Fahrenheit) warming would cause a reduction of 30% to 85% of the globe’s permafrost. In Russia, an estimated 65% of the land’s surface is permafrost.
The economics of melting permafrost:
With melting permafrost comes unstable land causing deadly landslides and a potential loss of housing and infrastructure as the sturdy surface is stripped from beneath.
The Russian economy alone by 2050 is set to suffer a loss of $96 billion AUD ($68 billion USD) with the collapse of land set to destroy much of the above. According to the Russian government, as of 2021, 40% of the buildings above permafrost have been affected, with older infrastructure in even greater danger.
In China, one of the major shipping routes by trucks and vans sits above permafrost, already suffering large cracks and lumps in the asphalt as a result.
According to the nature communications study, the world is set to lose $94.6 billion AUD ($66.9 billion USD) by the end of the century even if current pledges are met.
In areas above permafrost, organisms that die cannot decompose and instead remain in the frozen ice, leaving non-conscious but fully formed species in the ground for potentially thousands of years. Scientists of recent have discovered animals such as Bison, Reindeer, Horses and Muskox within permafrost since the last Ice Age. Such discoveries have also identified Mammoths, cave Lions and woolly Rhinoceros.
As the world’s permafrost begins to melt as a result of global warming, dead matter may soon arise from hundreds of years in solid state. Exposure to radically changing weather and bacteria will cause plants and animals to decompose; when this occurs, greenhouse gases like methane (CH4) are released. According to MIT News, the decomposition of organic matter contributes largely to yearly carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Despite greenhouse gas emissions, there’s an even greater issue. As the permafrost melts and allows dead matter to surface, so too do the long-lost viruses from thousands of years ago. A team of scientists studying glacier ice in China in 2021, found 28 previously unknown viruses said to be almost 15,000 years old. The discoveries were noted in the Microbiome Journal, suggesting the viruses may have come from a plant or soil. The study co-author stated that the organisms could possibly thrive in extreme environments like the Moon or Mars.
In Siberian permafrost, a 30,000-year-old virus was discovered, fortunately posing little risk to human or animal health. However, scientists do warn that exposure to life-threatening viruses could arrive as more permafrost disappears, especially in Siberia where permafrost is being lost at an unprecedented rate.
The Spanish Flu or Black Death 2.0?
No one can exactly predict what the next disease may be: Spanish Flu to the Bubonic plague, Anthrax and Smallpox. All of which, could pose a grave threat to public health – especially viruses “deceased” years ago where vaccines and drug treatments are currently unavailable.
Scientists warn ecological encroachment such as deforestation is only causing greater and greater health issues. As humans continue affecting the habitats of other species, the contact between humans and animals may only unleash more diseases as seen with the Coronavirus.
The latest example:
In 2016, an isolated community in Siberia were rattled by an infectious disease that spread across the local population. The result was 90 hospitalisations (50 children) and the death of a 12-year-old boy. The disease was Anthrax. The Russian government transported dozens of families 60 kilometres (37 miles) away from the infectious hotspot. It was later discovered that the outbreak had commenced amongst reindeer. To combat the growing issue, over 2,000 deceased reindeer bodies were burned. The last outbreak of Anthrax in the region was in 1941 making it difficult to determine how the disease had begun. Soon after, scientists came to a conclusion: as the permafrost beneath the ground started to thaw out, so too did a frozen reindeer infected with Anthrax, unleashing the disease onto local reindeers nearby.
The reindeer was believed to have been frozen for 75 years.
From severe droughts and mass famine to rising seas and floods, global warming will craft unpredictable weather patterns and threaten the health of the entire earth’s ecosystem. Now as a further ramification, we have new pandemics to fear.
From the Black Death, Smallpox, the Plague of Justinian, Influenza and COVID-19, the next horrific pandemic might not be drifting amongst the feral air of a wet market or spreading among rats, but instead, may just be laying right beneath your feet.