With the increase of global earth temperature, frozen land is thawing. But with millions of micro-organisms trapped in it, it is necessary to wonder if their release is not dangerous to human health.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Permafrost_in_Herschel_Island_007.jpg

What is permafrost?

Permafrost is a permanently frozen land, located in the Arctic and around. It covers 20% of emerged surfaces of our planet. Permafrost thickness can reach 1 km and it can be frozen for thousands of years. So, this soil has trapped plenty of bacteria, viruses, remains, and even some chemical and radioactive waste. It also contains billions of tonnes of carbon because of vegetal degradation.

Permafrost thaw due to global warming …

Global warming induces an increase in temperature. One of the consequences is permafrost thaw. That is problematic because during this process, everything that was entrapped inside it could rise to the surface. That includes vegetal carbon, which would release in the form of methane and carbon dioxide. As greenhouse gases, they speed up the meting process. It is a vicious cycle. Estimates show that 45% of permafrost will disappear until 2100, and that if, Paris Agreement terms are met.

… which causes bacteria and virus release

Recently, another issue has appeared: the release of unknow bacteria and viruses. According to a study realized by the “Institut de Microbiologie de la Méditerranée”, most of the bacteria should be resistant to an antibiotic based course of treatment. Yet, the latter represents the most common method to combat bacterial infections.

But in this frozen land, there are also some diseases that have disappeared, like smallpox and anthrax. Their release could have disastrous consequences. For example, in 2016, a young boy died of anthrax. The bacteria came from infected reindeer remains. Due to the melting of the ice the preserved bacteria was released.

What’s next?

The above-mentioned incident shows that the risk of permafrost warming is no longer hypothetical and can be a real danger to human health. Considering how rapidly permafrost is thawing, chances to have a new epidemic episode are consistent. The Covid-19 pandemic shows us how devastating the spread of a new disease could be. With all virus and bacteria locked up in permafrost, the coronavirus crisis could only be a beginning.


To go further:

  • https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-021-01162-y
  • https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.03.17.435775v2.full

A propos de Marion CAMPION