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Current Affairs

Thawing of Arctic permafrost may release ancient diseases

Date: 07 July 2020 Tags: Climate Change

Issue

Scientists have said the rapidly warming climate in the far north risks exposing long-dormant viruses, which may be tens or even hundreds of thousands of years old, and have been frozen in the permafrost in the Arctic.

 

Background

Devastating heat-wave has seen temperatures in Siberia reach a record 38C (100.4F), meanwhile, vast fires are burning, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

 

Details

  • Due to the rapid heating – the Arctic is warming up at least twice as fast as the rest of the world – the permafrost is now thawing for the first time since before the last ice age, potentially freeing pathogens the like of which modern humans have never before grappled with.

  • So far researchers have been able to successfully reactivate ancient DNA viruses, but not the more fragile RNA viruses.

  • RNA viruses include diseases such as Spanish flu and the coronavirus responsible for the current pandemic.

  • If the viruses come into contact with a proper host then they will reactivate. Human contact with viruses will allow their replication in a matter of time.

  • Thawing permafrost is also a time bomb: There’s more carbon stored in the permafrost than in the atmosphere. Melting it risks accelerating global warming even further.

  • The risk was not only due to the thawing permafrost, but also due to the increased human and animal activity in areas which have long been very sparsely populated.

  • A 2014 study estimates that thawing permafrost could release around 120 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by 2100, resulting in 0.29°C of additional warming.

  • The fear is that the thawing will encourage greater excavation in the Arctic. Mining and other excavation projects will become more appealing as the region grows warmer. 

 

Permafrost

Permafrost is a layer of frozen soil that covers 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere. It acts like a giant freezer, keeping microbes, carbon, poisonous mercury, and soil locked in place.