Permafrost: The Pandora’s Box of climate change
By Riggs Zyrille Vergara, Photo Editor
It was February 2003 when Liu Janlun travelled from China to Hong Kong and checked into the Metropole Hotel. At the time, he didn’t know that he had a disease that would be later known as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). While staying at the hotel, he would cough and cough, dispersing the virus all over the hallway and elevator. Through this singular incident, the other guests of his hotel picked up the illness and carried it around the world with them, making the disease become a pandemic.
“SARS went around the world in weeks. It’s entirely possible that the next [pandemic] will go around the world in days,” health journalist Maryn McKenna said in an episode of Vox’s docuseries Explained. The SARS pandemic had killed 774 people worldwide — about 10 per cent of the infected 8,098. After three months of its first case in China, there were already 806 infected people and 34 deaths.
SARS is only one of the many pandemics that have killed hundreds of people throughout history. But SARS showed how rapidly a disease can spread through human intervention. The 2018 Shattuck Flu Map simulation from the Institute for Disease Modeling, showed that if something like the lethal 1918 influenza pandemic — often referred to as the Spanish flu — happened today, it would kill 33 million people worldwide in just six months. But with the looming effects of climate change, a simulation might not be needed anymore.
In a remote area of Siberia last 2016, a 12-year-old child died due to a disease outbreak. That said disease also resulted to a total of 72 nomadic herders — including 41 children — to be hospitalized. According to a report from Wired, it was found out that the outbreak was due to a long-dormant disease that was last seen in that region in 1941: anthrax.
According to a study from the US National Library of Medicine, it was found that the release of the disease was due to abnormal average air temperatures — the hallmark effect of climate change — in the area that led to the degradation of permafrost. One of those defrosted permafrost areas contained a 75-year-old dead reindeer which had died from anthrax.
NASA defines permafrost as the part of the soil that has been frozen for at least two years. The upper part of it, called the active layer, usually thaws during the warm summer months and freezes again in the fall. In some colder regions, it might not even thaw at all. It contains organic matter such as dead plants and animals that cannot decompose due to the low temperature.
With the rapid thawing of the permafrost comes the release of methane and carbon which greatly contributes to the warming of the atmosphere. Not only that, the thawed carcasses also bring the possibility of the release of thousand-year-old viruses and bacteria that can cause disease outbreaks.
Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya, researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences, once concluded that “[as] a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.” Those diseases and infections can include anything from smallpox to the bubonic plague.
Another proof pointing to this possibility is the recent discovery of a 30,000-year-old giant virus from thawed permafrost in Siberia called the Mollivirus sibericum that is still surprisingly infectious. Chantal Abergel and Jean-Michel Claverie, scientists from the National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University in France said that the virus can only infect single-celled amoebas. Although that’s the case, it opened the argument that viruses this old — including ones that can potentially infect humans — can still be lurking frozen underneath.
According to Canadian Geographic, 22.8 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost, which includes about 50 per cent of Canada’s land mass. In 2014, a plant virus was found healthy and still intact from thawed out caribou dung in permafrost in the Northwest Territories. In fact, researchers were even able to put the virus back together and successfully infect a tobacco plant.
Currently, many studies are looking into the thawing of permafrost, especially in the Arctic, with the hopes of finding these microbes before any dire consequences emerge from it. One can only hope that with this impending threat, more effort toward studies of prevention like vaccines will be made. But there is still a long way to go until we are assured that we are prepared for the danger of this unknown small, frozen world. As disease ecologist Peter Daszak from the research-based organization EcoHealth Alliance puts into perspective, “We estimate there are five new emerging diseases happening somewhere on the planet every year and that rate is accelerating. So, it is inevitable that they will become pandemics.”