By Linn Smith
“Microbial diseases are normally unable to survive for long periods outside of their hosts. But the soil under permafrost offers a unique habitat to preserve bacteria and viruses over thousands of centuries.”
May 30, 2017—John Piscu, a Biology professor at the Montana State University said, “You put something on the surface of ice and a million years later it may come back out.” And this is about to happen. Temperatures in the Arctic Circle are rapidly rising, three times faster than the rest of the world!
Scientist have discovered evidence of RNA which caused the Spanish flu virus in 1918. Smallpox and bubonic plague are also thought to be buried in Siberia. Is it possible these diseases could again raise their ugly heads? The answer is, unfortunately, yes! NASA scientists have successfully revived bacteria frozen in an Alaskan pond for 32,000 years.
A microbe, a term for tiny creatures that are too small to see with the naked eye, can invade our body and make us very ill. Microbes, including bacteria and fungi, can cause infectious diseases such as flu and measles. Microbes that cause diseases are called pathogens.
Survival of Microbes Within Ice
An article, “Microbes Can Survive Deep Freeze for 100,000 Years” at newscientist.com, states the theory that microbes can survive trapped inside ice crystals under 3 kilometeres (about 1.9 miles) of snow for more than 100,000 years. “A tiny film of liquid water forms around the microbe. Oxygen, hydrogen, methane and many other gases will then diffuse to this film forming air bubbles nearby and providing the microbe with sufficient food to survive, thus any microbe can remain alive in solid ice, resisting temperatures down to minus 55 degrees Celsius (-67 degrees F) and pressures of 300 atmospheres.” The microbes would not be able to grow or reproduce but would be able to repair molecular damage, keeping them intact for more than a thousand centuries. The study used ice in both the Antarctic and Greenland, detecting isolated microbes.
Pathogens Come Back to Life
According to an article on BBC.com by Jasmine Fox, “Not all bacteria can come back to life after being frozen in permafrost. Anthrax bacteria can do so because they form spores, which are extremely hardy and can survive frozen for longer than a century.
Other bacteria that can form spores, and so could survive in permafrost, include tetanus and Clostridium botulinum, the pathogen responsible for botulism, a rare illness that can cause paralysis and even prove fatal. Some fungi can also survive in permafrost for a long time.”
The threat of disease causing microbes resurfacing is not entirely due to melting of the ice and permafrost. An indirect result of melting ice allows for drilling of gold, minerals, oil and natural gas. The layers of permafrost containing microbes can be exposed by drilling, as opening up previously pristine areas of the arctic becomes profitable.
Frozen permafrost soil, which was previously untouched by humans, is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time. Some microbes may have been embedded in the ice and frozen soil as long as a million years! That means melting ice and drilling for its natural resources could potentially open a Pandora’s box of diseases!
Microorganisms Disrupt Oceans
Even if these potential diseases would minimally affect humans, masses of microorganisms melted into the oceans will disturb the present marine systems and the balance of ocean life, flooding the oceans with long absent organisms. “Earth’s glaciers and sub-glacial sediments contain more microbial cells and carbon than all the lakes and rivers on the surface of the planet, a huge load of organic matter that, if thawed, would end up in the sea,” said Brent Christner, professor of Biological Sciences.
Release of Carbon with Thawing Biomass
The release of carbon from thawing biomass could cause an additional problem. As decaying biomass embedded in the ice is uncovered, it will convert into carbon dioxide which will add to our greenhouse gases, expediting global warming.
John Priscu, a professor studying Antarctic microbiology, states his concern for melting Arctic ice and permafrost, “If you hold that light switch right there before it flips, the lights begin to flicker. I think that’s what we’re seeing now. We’re pushing it and it’s becoming more variable, and pretty soon it’ll pass a threshold and reach a new state. Whether or not it can go back to a previous state, we don’t know. We may end up not ever being able to go back.”
We’re treading in unforeseen territory!