Melting of permafrost awakens fears of ancient diseases

As the Earth’s temperature begins to rise, not only are the ice caps melting, but the permafrost is melting as well. As this thick, usually frozen layer of soil begins to melt, rumors start to surface regarding ancient and, in some cases, unknown diseases resurfacing and posing potential threats to mankind. However, many of these rumors are false.

As Jasmine Fox-Skelly reports in BBC Earth, “scientists have discovered fragments of RNA from the 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska’s tundra. Smallpox and the bubonic plague are also likely buried in Siberia.” They suspect that black plague and smallpox DNA fragments are also frozen in the permafrost. These disease fragments have been discovered in buried, frozen bodies of humans and animals alike.

In addition to these fragments, NASA scientists discovered and revived Carnobacterium pleistocene, a lactic acid bacteria, frozen since the era of woolly mammoths over 32,000 years ago.

While scientists are not too concerned, the possibility that dormant plague and small pox viruses could reawaken and spread across the globe has caught their attention.

“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark,” Jean-Michel Claverie, microbiologist at the Aix-Marseille University in France said, per Jasmin Fox-Skelly at BBC. Yes, these viruses are concerning, but with modern medicine, including penicillin, they can be easily eradicated.

According to an article by Stephanie Pappas on Live Science, strains of the Zika virus — which has been of recent concern due to mosquitoes — have been discovered in the melting ponds and permafrost. Pappas also reviewed a 2014 study from the American Geophysical Union, which stated warmer climates could also cause outbreaks of Cholera, a deadly diarrheal disease, more so in areas with poor sanitation than others. Additionally, The Indiana Times suggests diseases like malaria and dengue fever will become more common with warmer climates; although, it is not made clear if these specific diseases are coming from the melting permafrost.

Business Insider adds to the list with the discovery of Mollivirus sibericum, from the Siberian permafrost. While it is unclear exactly how this virus affects humans, it is a massive virus, containing 500 genes, causing it to be placed in a category known as Megaviridae, according to Ancient Origins website. The website further reports the discovery of Pithovirus sibericum and Pandoravirus (more large, ancient viruses discovered in 2003), also from Siberia’s permafrost. Erin Brodwin and Lydia Ramsey of Business Insider report a 2005 discovery of Mimivirus in the melting Russian permafrost, which is a virus with 1,200 genes that is twice the length of the viruses infecting the population today. Fox-Skelly notes that tetnaus and pathogens that cause botulism can survive in the frozen ground as well.

These viruses seem intimidating and will require further studying to determine their threat to humans and animals, but they are not the main concern. A reindeer with anthrax died over 75 years ago, became frozen under the soil, and released the disease in 2016 when it thawed and infected about 20 people and killed a young boy in the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle. Bacteria and viruses are normally not able to survive away from a host for too long; however, the dark, frozen, oxygen deprived permafrost creates the perfect environment for these bacteria to survive.

As the ice continues to thaw, it is possible for more ancient viruses and bacteria to be rediscovered; scientists fear that this will only be the beginning. It is entirely possible for many ancient diseases to “rise from the dead” and infect the living.