As global temperatures rise, there are many dangers the human species may face. Food sources are vanishing, glaciers are melting and ancient bacteria and viruses have already begun escaping from their melting permafrost cages. This may sound like science fiction, but it is becoming a reality; it is as close to a miniature zombie apocalypse as we may ever get.
Before anyone starts to freak out, there are a few key details that must be examined. According to NPR, the environment these diseases inhabit is called permafrost, which is ground that is frozen throughout the year. When permafrost thaws, it releases everything that was frozen along with it, such as bacteria or viruses, that may make their way into nearby food or water supplies. While modern medicine is capable of fighting the diseases with antibiotics, there may be no cure, and humans might not have a high tolerance to them.
Communities situated closer to the poles have already faced dire consequences. In a Siberian town in 2016, a 12-year-old boy died and around 20 people were infected with anthrax, according to the BBC. The permafrost near this town had recently unfroze to reveal an anthrax-infected reindeer carcass, which led to the infection of 2,000 other reindeer, eventually spreading to the town itself.
These illnesses can be especially dangerous because in many cases, they have not been exposed to modern humans for hundreds or even thousands of years. “We have antibiotics and vaccines to protect against diseases, but none for the types being released. For instance, NASA scientists recently revived bacteria that had been encased in an Alaskan pond for 32,000 years, which we would have no experience fighting against,” Biology teacher Alexandra Dotson said.
New viruses may be released from the permafrost, putting humanity at risk, but other threats more familiar to humanity are also at risk of reanimating. According to the BBC, the Spanish flu virus, smallpox and the bubonic plague all likely lie in wait inside the permafrost in Siberia.
While the infection itself is scary, there is more to fear as the issue worsens. “As global temperature shifts and ecosystems are affected by that, not only are there going to be areas that are melting, causing the release of these trapped bacteria or viruses that are in the soil, but you also have the spreading of viruses or bacteria into areas that they weren’t previously,” AP Biology teacher Kevin Guse said.
The prospect of ancient diseases waking up to destroy humanity is certainly terrifying, but it is not the deadliest consequence of global warming. According to the Scientific American, the diseases released from permafrost have varying levels of ferocity and timing. So, their impact may not even reach us in a timely manner, if at all.
Though reanimated diseases are not the most threatening, melting permafrost is slowly infecting and even killing people. One of the main solutions is to simply slow global warming. “As much as we can try to quell the spread of global warming, in terms of stopping carbon emissions and being cognizant of our carbon footprint is a step in the right direction,” Guse said.