Just days before 2020 ended, The Siberian Times reported on the discovery of an extinct ice-age creature in Yakutia, the coldest inhabited region on Earth located in north-eastern Russia. The woolly rhino, found with many of its internal organs still intact, had been preserved under Siberian permafrost for twenty thousand years.
This is just one of the many discoveries of prehistoric animals made in recent years, courtesy of melting permafrost. Whilst permafrost is regarded as an ‘incredible resource for learning about life’, comparable to a ‘deep freezer’, these are soils that have been completely frozen for around fifty millennia. Just as they preserve captivating ancient creatures, they also preserve menacing ancient pathogens: some bacteria and viruses we have never seen before, and some we have seen but regard as eradicated (think the Spanish flu or bubonic plague), all alive and well once thawed.
As global warming worsens and permafrost continues to melt, scientists have raised their concerns on what this means for our health, with a ‘Pandora’s box of diseases‘ scenario being quite likely. If ice continues to melt at record-rates, pandemics caused by ice age viruses will no longer sound like a dystopian movie script, but a reality caused by our very own negligence.
By Elisa Emch