Global Warming Is Thawing Out Ancient Viruses And Bacteria Buried In Ice

When permafrost melts, sometimes it releases more than just water.

May 16, 2017
ice cave

We've always lived with the possibility of some bacteria and viruses being deadly to humans. Luckily, over time, modern medicine has developed vaccines and immunities to many diseases, and others (like the plague and smallpox) have disappeared into history. But now, thanks to rapidly melting glaciers and ice caps, some of these ancient diseases are coming back. 

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Last summer in the Arctic circle, a 12-year-old boy died and many others were hospitalized when they suddenly become infected with anthrax. The anthrax, scientists theorize, actually came from an infected reindeer that died in the region over 75 years ago and was frozen in permafrost, or frozen soil, until the permafrost melted in last summer's heat wave.

When the ice melted, the anthrax diluted from the reindeer's body into the food and water supply, and began infecting the nearby reindeer herds, and eventually the people living nearby, too. 

Related: Soil: The Secret Weapon Against Climate Change

With the rise of global warming, the possibility of diseases frozen in ice thawing out has become a potentially deadly reality. Many bacteria and viruses can survive in ice for millions of years, and we would not have a vaccine developed against them. 

In their report in Global Health Action, scientists Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya estimated that repeated outbreaks of anthrax caused death of 1.5 million deer in Russian North before 1925, and that cases of anthrax among people or cattle have been reported in 28,986 settlements of the Russian Federation. There are also 13,885 cattle burial grounds, of which 4,961 sites do not meet sanitary standards. They explained, "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." 

Scientists have discovered fragments of the Spanish flu virus in Alaska's tundra, and smallpox and the bubonic plague are thought to be frozen in Siberia.


Permafrost normally melts about 50 centimeters every summer but with global warming, it is melting faster. Under the ice, bacteria can  simply wait until it's thawed out and released to become active again.

"Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark," evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France told the BBC. "Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past."

glacier melting and man in front of it
James + Courtney Forte/getty


What we can do

This issue is just one more reason (albeit a very scary one) that it's incredibly important to be aware of our environmental impact every day, and to take active measures to fight global warming. 

On a large scale, scientists are establishing the locations where burial grounds might become uncovered due to global warming of the permafrost, and taking necessary safety precautions. But on a smaller scale, there are a few things we can do every single day, too. Even your garden can help fight global warming.

On top of taking those actions, be sure to vote for government and lawmakers that will fight to protect the planet—and future generations to come.