Ancient Never-seen-before Viruses May be Exposed in Melting Ice

MELTING SEA ICE COULD BE HOLDING ANCIENT SUPERBUGS

Amid the anxiety of the spreading coronavirus and influenza, there remains a profound concern of viruses trapped in sea-ice and glaciers around the world. These viruses are unknown as what kind of threat they have to man, and how deadly. Also, there would not be a vaccine for a severe outbreak due to the unknown nature of these frozen superbugs. In Tibet, an experiment was conducted where about a 0.5 inch of ice was shaved off the top. There were 33 groups or viruses found, 28 of them unknown to man (Source: livescience.com).

However, Tibet is not the only location with ancient ice. The entire Arctic Circle and North Pole, including Siberia, have permafrost that has been melting due to the recent warmer winters. This means that the unknown-to-man viruses are coming to life after being dormant for perhaps millions of years. Permafrost is an ideal environment for keeping bacteria and viruses in storage (Source: bbc.com).

Permafrost in northern Norway, along the Arctic Ocean. Credit: NASA

It’s not just the viruses that are buried below the ice. Humans and also animals that were infected by deadly viruses in the past were not able to be buried deeply and they lurk near the surface. This means that if they defrost, whatever killed them could come back to life and infect more animals and humans. This is not a guarantee however, since only fragments of the virus’s DNA has been found, and not the entire virus itself (Source: bbc.com).

There is debate on whether or not these superbugs can cause a world-wide pandemic. Outside of a host, a virus cannot survive in air and sunlight. It needs person-to-person transfer or some kind of a medium to live in. Even if the ice caps continue to melt, the viruses could be exposed but may not be as big of a threat as first thought.

However, in 2016 a large Anthrax outbreak struck Siberia after an Arctic “heatwave.” It is unknown if this climate changes is natural or man-made. The evidence certainly shows that overall things have been warming up, but the root cause is uncertain since we would need sample sizes of data over the span of hundreds of thousands of not millions of years to draw conclusions.

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Author: Michael Griffith

I have had a passion for the weather since a very young age and am a degreed meteorologist. I have a Bachelor of Science from Penn State University and a Master's from Plymouth State University. If you ever see me out and about in the Charlotte, NC area, be sure to say hi!