What lies beneath

Posted by Flux on 

20 November 2023

What’s trending?

Climate change threatens human life in many ways but one of the less obvious ones could be a rise in pandemics. Arctic permafrost – a frozen layer of soil beneath the ground – is thawing and releasing viruses and bacteria that are thousands of years old. Estimates suggest that we can expect four sextillion microorganisms to be released from ice melt each year. In 2016, the rapid thawing of a reindeer carcass in western Siberia caused an outbreak of Anthrax, killing thousands of reindeer and sending dozens of people to hospital. Late last year, scientists revived several viruses from the Siberian permafrost, the oldest one being 48,500 years old. These viruses target amoeba only but they were still alive and able to replicate.

Why is it important?

The release of ancient viruses poses an existential risk to mankind. It exposes us to new diseases against which we don’t have immunity and could cause the next pandemic. While it is indeed possible that a defrosted pathogen could infect a human and cause a global outbreak, it is highly unlikely. Part of the reason for this is that the Arctic is largely uninhabited by humans. However this is changing as the world heats up and industrialisation spreads. But even if it causes damage to plants or animals, this could also be devastating to human beings as our delicate ecosystem is upset. Scientists agree that the risks posed by pathogens shouldn’t be underestimated.

What can businesses and policymakers do about it? 

Slowing down climate change is a way to curb the release of dangerous pathogens. This is one  way for businesses to play a part in reducing the risk of a zombie virus causing a pandemic. While the Covid-19 pandemic was a black swan event, it did show us the importance of businesses having an economic buffer to withstand unforeseen events. Now that the pandemic is over, it is important for businesses to continue to hold financial reserves for a proverbial rainy day. One can’t predict what the impact of one of those pathogens will be. Also, it is important that research is funded as a defence against the dangers these organisms present.  Encourage collaboration between scientists, public health experts, and policymakers to assess and address emerging risks related to thawing ice. This is a complex challenge that requires a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach involving governments, businesses, scientists, and international organisations.

By Faeeza Khan

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Image credit: Asile Clairette

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