Will the Thawing of Arctic Ice Release Diseases?

Will diseases frozen in Arctic permafrost be released and possibly reanimated by the thawing caused by global warming?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #246

A 2014 study resulted in the successful revival of two “giant” viruses – so-called because, unlike most viruses, they are so large that they can be seen with an ordinary microscope – buried only 100 feet below the Siberian surface. Those particular giant viruses only affect single-celled amoeba but the authors of the study are careful to note that their success “suggests that the thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health.”

This warning highlights another way global warming could lead to the release of diseases from ancient ice. As Arctic ice melts, previously inaccessible pathways become suddenly passable, and industries are already looking to mine for gold and other minerals as well as drill for oil.

Climate change, of course, also brings with it other concerns over the spread of diseases.

Will these frozen diseases eventually affect humans?

The fact that these viruses can be reanimated under highly controlled lab conditions, however, does not mean that we will see the return of now dormant diseases in nature. What these results do suggest is that the chances of that happening are at least nonzero. Climate change, of course, also brings with it other concerns over the spread of diseases. Along with rising temperatures comes the expansion of the geographic span of climates where disease carriers (like mosquitos or ticks) as well as their food sources can thrive.

So while we may not fully understand yet what climate change has in store for us in the way of diseases, further investigation into the potential for the revival of long buried bacteria, particularly strains that are resistant to our antibiotics, would help us be better prepared for the rising temperatures to come.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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