OPINION: Thawing bacteria, viruses show need for global cooperation in face of climate change
June 16th | Carey Restino
About a century ago, more than a million reindeer died from anthrax in northern Russia. It was difficult to dig deep graves, and the carcasses were buried close to the surface in what was then permafrost. But after the warm summer last year, that permafrost thawed. The exposed corpse released anthrax into the soil and water, infecting the food supply in a remote corner of Siberia called the Yamal Peninsula.
A recent report covered by the BBC tells how the anthrax reawakening lead to the hospitalization of 20 people in that region and the death of one 12-year-old boy.
Scientists suspect this is just the tip of the melting iceberg when it comes to microbes and viruses that could be released as permafrost melts. The frost-filled earth is the perfect environment for preserving these elements — cold, dark and without oxygen. Pathogenic viruses that have caused global epidemics in the past could very well reawaken like the anthrax-infected reindeer. But even beyond epidemics like smallpox, as layers of frost melt, they can release things we know nothing about — viruses and pathogens that existed long before humans did.
In one study, scientists were able to revive bacteria from a frozen pond in Alaska after 32,000 years. It had been frozen since the Pleistocene period, but came back to life as the ice melted. Another 8-million-year-old bacterium from Antarctica was revived, as were other bacteria responsible for botulism. Some viruses are equally good at surviving isolation in permafrost — some known as "giant viruses" have been revived after spending 30,000 years in the deep freeze.
Studies have shown that permafrost melting isn't the only threat — development along Siberia has caused deep layers of permafrost to be disturbed that have been unexposed for centuries.
This winter, NASA scientists reportedly found 10-50,000-year-old microbes in the crystals of a Mexican mine. And some have been found to be naturally resistant to antibiotics, despite having never come into contact with humans or antibiotics. This is probably due to the fact that these organisms contacted with natural antibiotics over time and developed a resistance as a survival technique.
If all this sounds like the plotline to a horror film, that's probably not too far off. Scientists stop short of ringing alarm bells simply because there is, at this point, more that we do not know than know. But that's pretty much the case with any major shift in the environment — the result is almost always surprising and unpredictable because we are not dealing with conditions or circumstances that have occurred at any time in human history.
One thing is certain — Alaska and other regions in the Arctic will find out first. These regions are warming up many times faster than the rest of the world and with that dramatic change, there is less time to adjust, whether it's to revitalized bacteria and viruses from eras gone by or to blooms of more familiar species and microbes that have never before been able to survive in the Arctic.
The bottom line in all this change is that it is more important now than ever before to be informed — to be at the table with other Arctic nations sharing information and data and working. The recent move by the current federal administration to pull out of one of the most notable acts of global unity, the Paris Agreement, is a serious setback for efforts to curtail the impacts of climate change. But arguably more damaging is the impact on international relations, which are vital, especially in the Arctic, where populations are slim and resources limited. By leaving the Paris Agreement, the United States is walking away from the conversation about how to mitigate climate change, while continuing to contribute to the problem.
For the time being, the United States' decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement may not seem to have very big implications. But in the years to come, as we face a rapidly changing environment, wrestle with new risks and concerns, and attempt to stay ahead of the pace of change, we may very much want to be involved with the collaborative efforts of the rest of the Arctic nations, as well as the world.
Alaskans and their delegates should push for those who shape policy to consider the needs of the people who live in the Arctic as well as the rest of the nation. Most important in those needs is the need to have a seat at the table when people are deciding things that may impact our world for generations to come. Let's hope it doesn't change faster than our politicians can react and respond to because right now we need international cooperation more than anything.