What’s going on here?
Scientists have warned that melting permafrost in Siberia, northern Russia, could unleash ancient viruses and trigger another pandemic. These “zombie viruses”, also known as Methuselah microbes, have been frozen for thousands of years but could still have the potential to infect humans.
What does this mean?
As the name suggests, permafrost is frozen the majority of the time. It doesn’t melt each summer and re-freeze in the winter. It’s found at very high latitudes in places like Siberia, Canada and Alaska. But now, with the effects of global heating, the permafrost is starting to thaw in some places.
Geneticist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University in France, who is part of the programme, said: “The crucial point about permafrost is that it is cold, dark and lacks oxygen, which is perfect for preserving biological material. You could put a yoghurt in permafrost and it might still be edible 50,000 years later.”
Why should we care?
So far, the viruses from the permafrost have only been shown to infect single-celled organisms, but there could be many more deadly pathogens still buried.
As the Arctic sea ice melts, there has been a massive rise in shipping, traffic and industrial development in Siberia. Plans are underway for big mining operations to drill deep holes into the permafrost. These kinds of activities are potentially very damaging to the Arctic environment – and they could also release previously frozen viruses in huge numbers.
🧊Check out NASA’s interactive data on Arctic sea ice
🛢️Read this deep dive into the impacts of mining in the Arctic
🎬Life imitating art? Scare yourself with movie The Thaw about a prehistoric parasite