Expect ‘more intense heatwaves’ due to climate change
Weather experts from the World Meteorological Organization have said there is a link between extreme heatwaves occurring across the world and global warming.
Cody Godwin, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Deadly pathogens lying dormant in centuries-old Arctic permafrost could become the latest threat from global climate change.
The potential spread of pathogens has attracted the attention of federal government scientists, medical professionals and Pentagon officials. Pathogens – disease-causing organisms – have been trapped in frozen Arctic soils for centuries, including large swaths of Alaska, Canada and Russia. Climate change has had a huge impact on the Far North, where temperatures have increased two to four times faster than the rest of the world.
The stakes are high.
Global warming has opened sea lanes in the Arctic and increased competition from the United States. adversaries like China and Russia. In response, the Pentagon sent more troops and fighter jets to Alaska. The Army also conducts some of its larger-scale exercises in Alaska, involving thousands of airmen, soldiers and sailors. Keeping them healthy is the responsibility of the Pentagon and is a national security imperative.
Could higher temperatures release a multitude of microbes?
Warming temperatures across the world could release a multitude of microbes whose impact on humans, plants and animals is unknown.
“We know there are bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens in permafrost,” said Jill Brandenberger, climate security research manager at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “We know that as we thaw, these three classes of pathogens could be released. What we don’t know is how viable it is for them to stay alive and then infect. »
U.S. Northern Command, the Pentagon headquarters charged with protecting America from attack, acknowledged the potential threat in a statement to USA TODAY.
“We are collectively assessing the risks associated with the potential release of pathogens resulting from melting ice and permafrost due to climate change,” the statement said. “Some of the nation’s best scientists, medical professionals and field operators are working together to advance our scientific understanding of the microbes that thawing permafrost can release and to improve the public’s understanding of the dangers this dynamic can pose.”
Concern about released pathogens making troops sick
Fear that pathogens released from the ice could make troops sick drew researchers from across the government to a recent conference at the Brandenberger lab, run by a contractor for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
Permafrost covers 85% of Alaska and is made up of soil and rocks that remain frozen year-round. It can reach depths of 1,000 feet in the far north of the state and thins into patches further south. Just outside Fairbanks, the Army Corps of Engineers operates a research tunnel dug through permafrost. Inside the dusty cavern, the work of microbes is evident even at subzero temperatures. The cheesy smell of methane is evidence that microbes break down organic matter.
Brandenberger, who has advised the military on the effects of climate change for a decade, said the Pentagon is keenly interested in how pathogens could affect troops operating in the Arctic. Although global warming has increased temperatures there, winters are still brutal, with temperatures of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks still common. Soldiers coming from southern states could be particularly vulnerable.
“That could increase their ability to exhibit symptoms of pathogen exposure whereas, for example, an Indigenous person who lived there would not express those same symptoms because they live there,” she said.
A gap in research?
A key problem for policymakers is what Brandenberger calls “the research gap.” Current understanding of what harmful microbes exist, which might survive freeze-thaw cycles, and how they might infect plants and humans is limited. Most pathogens won’t survive, she said, but some might adapt.
“One of our biggest concerns is that there are a lot of unknowns,” Brandenberger said.
Permafrost has been stable for 1,000 years. What it could reveal was a key topic for permafrost experts, microbiologists, virologists, data scientists, oceanographers and clinicians at the Seattle conference. Scholars from the Center for Resilient Communities at the University of Idaho, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Alaska Fairbanks were also in attendance.
Another complication is that permafrost is not uniform. The thinner areas around Fairbanks, where Ft. Wainwright is localized, are warmer and thaw faster. The heavier rains of the summer accelerated the melting of water in this region. Identifying areas of permafrost most likely to be pathogen reservoirs could provide the military with a “risk map.”
“Preferably don’t go here,” she said of what a risk map might show. “If you go here, make sure you take all protective measures, including bringing water.”
A thawed animal carcass
The danger is not hypothetical. Branderberger noted evidence that a thawed animal carcass released deadly anthrax. But she called cases like those “one-off, low-probability” events. There are also cemeteries of smallpox and flu victims in the Arctic permafrost.
The next COVID-19 is unlikely to wait to be released from the tundra, she said. A zombie bug that triggers the apocalypse isn’t his main concern.
For now, the urgency should be to learn more about what is out there, because it is likely that a pathogen will eventually infect a human, animal or plant.
“It’s entirely likely and we should do some research,” Brandenberger said. “Is this something we need to panic about right now? We really need to focus on the more technical gaps in science.