The origin of the next pandemic that humanity suffers could not be in bats, monkeys or birds, but in the melting of the ice of the poles, where countless viruses and bacteria live frozen. Findings from a new study indicate that as global temperatures rise due to climate change, viruses and bacteria hidden in glaciers and permafrost are more likely to wake up and infect local wildlife.
The research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, included a genetic analysis of soil and lake sediments from freshwater Lake Hazen in the Arctic, which revealed that the risk of viral shedding, where a virus infects a new host by the first time – may be higher near melting glaciers.
“The risk of spillage increases with runoff from melting glaciers, an indicator of climate change,” the researchers say in their paper. “If climate change were to also shift the species range of potential viral vectors and reservoirs northward, the High Arctic could become fertile ground for emerging pandemics.”
The findings imply that as global temperatures rise due to climate change, viruses and bacteria locked up in glaciers and permafrost are more likely to wake up and infect local wildlife, particularly as their range is also getting closer to the poles.
The research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggested that the risk of viruses spreading to new hosts was greatest in places close to where large amounts of glacial meltwater were flowing, a situation that becomes more likely as the weather warms up.
Global warming could unleash a dangerous pandemic
In the study, the researchers point out that there is a risk of the virus spreading in places close to where large amounts of glacial meltwater flowed, which is growing more and more every year.
The great danger facing humanity is that these are viruses that may have been frozen in permafrost for billions of years (the layer of soil that, in theory, should be permanently frozen), so they could be totally unknown viruses to humans.
In fact, this would not be a new case, since an investigation carried out with ice samples taken from a plateau in China revealed that the ice kept 33 types of viruses, of which 28 were unknown and some were up to 15,000 years old.
Scientists say a warming climate could increase the risks if new potential hosts move into previously inhospitable regions.
How was the research at Lake Hazen
Dr. Stéphane Aris-Brosou and colleagues from the University of Ottawa in Canada collected soil and sediment samples from Lake Hazen, near where small, medium and large amounts of local glacial melt flowed. They then sequenced the RNA and DNA in these samples to identify signatures that closely matched those of known viruses, as well as potential animal, plant, or fungal hosts.
They used ropes and a snowmobile to lift sediment from the lake through nearly 980 feet (300 meters) of water, and the samples were then sequenced for DNA and RNA, the genetic blueprints and messengers of life. “This allowed us to know what viruses are in a given environment and what potential hosts are also present,” said Aris-Brosou.
The data was fed into an algorithm that evaluated the likelihood of these viruses infecting unrelated groups of organisms and suggested that the risk of the viruses spreading to new hosts was greater in locations near where large amounts of meltwater were flowing, a situation that becomes more likely as Planet Earth warms.
The team did not quantify how many of the viruses they identified were previously unknown, something they plan to do in the coming months, nor did they assess whether these viruses were capable of triggering infection.
Viruses need hosts such as humans, animals, plants, or fungi to replicate and spread, and can occasionally jump to a new one that lacks immunity, as seen during the Covid-19 pandemic. Scientists talk about “spillovers” (a virus jumping from another species) and “spillovers” (when a virus jumps from humans to wild animals).
“Two things are very clear now. Firstly, that the Arctic is warming rapidly and that the main risks to humanity come from its influence on our climate”, Stéphane Aris-Brosou. Second, that diseases from elsewhere are reaching vulnerable communities and ecosystems in the Arctic.”
“We urgently need to explore microbial worlds across our planet to understand these risks in context,” said Arwyn Edwards, director of Aberystwyth University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Environmental Microbiology.
- Sarbal Village: A hamlet in Kashmir waiting for development
- Farmers in MP face crop failure every year due to climate change
- Climate Change: Kishanganga Dam causes water concerns