Here’s a new concern to add to the list of potential global warming threats: giant viruses emerging from the melting permafrost in Siberia.
Permafrost is soil and rock that has remained at a temperature below the freezing point of water for several years. But these new viruses were not born yesterday – they were taken from a sample of permafrost that had been frozen in Siberia for 30,000 years. The story was recently reported in the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences.
What’s unsettling is that despite their extended stint in the deep freeze, the viruses managed to remain infectious. They each successfully infected a variety of amoeba found in the current ocean environment. As the last line in the NAS article reads,
“the fact that two different viruses could be easily revived from prehistoric permafrost should be of concern in a context of global warming.”
These viruses were dug up as part of a scientific study, which is small scale stuff. Global warming however, can soften permafrost on a much larger scale. This can potentially liberate and reawaken viruses in and around the Arctic, where these two were found, and in Antarctica as well. The same thing could happen when drilling for oil and other fossil fuels, or mining for minerals. (Fortunately, drilling for oil and mining in Antarctica is banned, by International treaty, at the current time.)
An open question is this: just how dangerous can these viruses be? They belong to a class called giant viruses, which certainly doesn’t sound good. Other viruses in the same class have been known to be floating around in the ocean for some time, however, and do not seem to pose a threat. But these two new varieties are different – their potential is not known.
A much greater concern is the idea that viruses once thought to be eradicated, such as smallpox, may actually be locked in the permafrost, somewhere on the planet. If these critters are unearthed by arctic development or warming, that raises the possibility of a comeback. Also, some scientists theorize that known viruses – SARS and Ebola to name two – will find it easier to spread, mutate, evolve and become more dangerous in a warmer climate.
In 2014, Jon Stewart drew an interesting contrast, on the Daily Show. In his inimitable way, he compared the threat from Ebola, (which was getting enormous attention on Fox News,) with the threat of climate change, which was not as well covered. The great commentator could make yet a larger point today – suppressing global warming may likely lessen the potential threat from a virus, addressing both problems at once.
A large increase in the severity and number virus infections is still a mostly theoretical consequence of global warming, and there are already many proven and real negative consequence at play. But the possibility of promoting new viral threats does, at a minimum, serve as a reminder of how very unexpected and unwelcome changes can result from the indiscriminate recovery and burning of fossil fuels, large scale mining of arctic areas, and creation of other geologic havoc.