Thawing permafrost reveals undiscovered viruses

Map by Philippe Rekacewicz, UNEP/GRID-Arendal; data from International Permafrost Association, 1998; Circumpolar Active-Layer Permafrost System, version 1.0, and National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Although there is no definitive consensus as to the cause of global warming, there is evidence that the global temperature is continuously rising, and scientists are finding things under the permafrost that could be dangerous to humans.

Scientists in France have recently thawed and revived an ancient virus found in the Siberian permafrost. Although this 30,000-year-old one-celled organism, known as Pithovirus sibericum, is not dangerous to humans, it leaves many questioning what else may be lurking underground that would revive on its own as permafrost thaws due to global warming.

“The revival of such an ancestral amoeba-infecting virus . . . 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,” according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Craig Oberg, Weber State University microbiology professor, said microorganisms that cause disease are usually found in places not normally inhabited by humans.

“As far as things that have been frozen away for time, the best example of that is the influenza pandemic of 1918-19,” Oberg said. “When this strain of influenza swarmed around the world that year, it killed an estimated 20-30 million people, making it the greatest single pandemic of recorded history.”

Dan Bedford, WSU geography professor, said the Arctic is warming at twice the global rate that temperature change and data shows the Arctic Sea ice is shrinking and permafrost is thawing.

“This single-celled harmless organism is not the only thing down there,” Bedford said. “We are inadvertently thawing out permafrost where these things reside. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about from the thawing of permafrost in the first place.”

A study by researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Snow and Ice Data Center estimate that “one- to two-thirds of Earth’s permafrost will disappear by 2200.”

When permafrost thaws, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, contributing to the increase in global temperature.

According to National Snow and Ice Data Center scientist Kevin Schaefe, “29-59 percent of the permafrost will disappear by 2200. That permafrost took tens of thousands of years to form, but will melt in less than 200.” 

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, since 1901, the average surface temperature has risen at an average of 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, and the average temperature has risen more quickly since the late 1970s by 0.36 to 0.55 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, with the warmest year on record being 2012.

“It’s really a snowball effect. We have enough to worry about with permafrost as it is,” Bedford said. “And now we are finding this idea there are these viruses that may be down there . . . that’s definitely an issue.”

The majority of permafrost found in the United States resides in Alaska.

According to the EPA’s website, “Over the past 50 years, temperatures across Alaska increased by an average of 3.4 degrees F. The rate of warming in Alaska was twice the national average over that same period of time. Average annual temperatures in Alaska are projected to increase an additional 3.5 to 7 degrees F by the middle of this century.” 

Oberg said that once the permafrost and glacial ice melts, a host of different organisms and bacteria might surface, contaminating the food and water supply throughout the world, such as with salmonella that may contain unique genes.

“Once it gets in the water and somebody drinks the water, some interesting things could happen,” Oberg said.