Melting polar ice could release old viruses

Dec 12, 2012 by John Platt

In 1999, Russian scientists famously dug a long-dead frozen woolly mammoth out of the Siberian permafrost. Other things lurking in the frozen earth may be more alive - and more dangerous. Scientists warn that global warming could release ancient bacteria, viruses and fungi from frozen lakes, glaciers and permafrost. If this happens, humans could become exposed to viruses and diseases they have not encountered in thousands of years.

As Montana State University professor John Priscu told Scientific American and Daily Climate earlier this year, ice is a perfect storehouse for microorganisms. "You put something on the surface of the ice and a million years later it comes back out."

Scientists around the world have been studying Arctic and Antarctic ice for years. One 2009 study of Antarctica's frozen revealed DNA from nearly 10,000 species of viruses, including many that had not previously been identified by science.

Frozen viruses may have been making their way back into the environment for centuries, even without global warming. Scientists theorize that periodically melting Arctic lakes release previously frozen , which are picked up by and transported toward . One virus seems to have reappeared in the 1930s, the 1960s and, most recently, in 2006, when a Siberian lake melted, a researcher told Wired in 2009. "This phenomenon may take place regularly, far beyond what we witness," said Dany Shoham of Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

Many viruses won't remain viable after freezing, but others are more adaptable. Influenza, for example, has the properties that would allow it to survive the ice and the ability to transfer between animals and humans once it is out," Shoham told The Independent in 2005.

Ice isn't the only repository for diseases. Many are also carried by insects, some of which are expanding their range due to warming climates. Humans won't be the only ones affected. Climate change will stress out some organisms, such as coral, leaving them more vulnerable to new viruses. "It's really a double whammy. Not only does the host become more stressed and susceptible, but also the pathogens are growing faster," Drew Harvell of Cornell University told LiveScience earlier this year. "That's the key to why a warmer world can be a sicker world."

Explore further: Far more displaced by disasters than conflict

4.7 /5 (6 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Siberian permafrost melting

Aug 11, 2005

Russian scientists said the western Siberian sub-Arctic region -- a peat bog the size of France and Germany -- has begun to thaw.

Polar climate change may lead to ecological change

Aug 11, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Ice and frozen ground at the North and South Poles are affected by climate change induced warming, but the consequences of thawing at each pole differ due to the geography and geology, according to a Penn ...

Russians revive Ice Age flower from frozen burrow

Feb 20, 2012

It was an Ice Age squirrel's treasure chamber, a burrow containing fruit and seeds that had been stuck in the Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years. From the fruit tissues, a team of Russian scientists ...

Recommended for you

Far more displaced by disasters than conflict

7 hours ago

Disasters last year displaced three times more people than violent conflicts, showing the urgent need to improve resilience for vulnerable people when fighting climate change, according to a study issued ...

Coral growth rate plummets in 30-year comparison

14 hours ago

A team of researchers working on a Carnegie expedition in Australia's Great Barrier Reef has documented that coral growth rates have plummeted 40% since the mid-1970s. The scientists suggest that ocean acidification ...

Environmentalists and industry duke it out over plastic bags

15 hours ago

Campaigns against disposable plastic shopping bags and their environmental impact recently scored a major win. In August, California lawmakers passed the first statewide ban on the bags, and Governor Jerry Brown is expected ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shinobiwan Kenobi
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 13, 2012
inb4 denialists flood the thread with claims of this article being an AGW propaganda piece =^-^=