Could the Next Global Pandemic Come From Melting Permafrost?

Welcome to the world of "zombie viruses"

Melting permafrost
Meting permafrost in Siberia, 2019.
Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Scientific and governmental agencies around the world have been raising an alarm for several years now about the threat posed by melting permafrost. Besides the effect on the landscape and the continuance of climate change, there’s another cause for alarm here: viruses can lay dormant in the permafrost before thawing out and continuing their work. And if that doesn’t send a shudder down your spine, your memories of the current decade are likely very different from mine.

Writing in The Guardian, Robin McKie explained the dangers posed by so-called “zombie viruses.” McKie cites scientific studies that revealed evidence that viruses preserved in the permafrost for tens of thousands of years were still capable of infecting organisms (albeit single-celled ones). McKie also points out that the loss of Arctic sea ice poses a similar concern.

“We don’t know what viruses are lying out there in the permafrost, but I think there is a real risk that there might be one capable of triggering a disease outbreak — say of an ancient form of polio,” virologist Marion Koopmans told The Guardian.

If this sounds like the stuff of science fiction, you’re not wrong; a number of writers of speculative and horror fiction have riffed on the concept of a virus laying dormant for millennia before thawing out. Sequoia Nagamatsu’s acclaimed novel How High We Go in the Dark features one particularly memorable take on this premise.

Unfortunately, recent scientific studies have indicated that permafrost is warming at a rate faster than the rest of the world. A study published in 2022 pointed out that rising temperatures aren’t the only factor at play here; heightened levels of rainfall are also melting the permafrost at high rates. What viruses are lurking in the permafrost waiting to infect us? We might have an answer to that sooner than we’d like.

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