Climate change is a serious issue, with arguably the most prominent effect being global warming. This warming is getting increasingly serious as time goes on, with the Earth’s temperature increasing 1°C since 1880, and if the Earth gets warmer by 1.5°C serious irreversible ecological damage will occur. The oceans are rising, the weather is getting more intense and ecosystems are dying. Akua Adu-Poko discusses what this might mean for the future spread of diseases…
These pathogens aren’t new, but they would present a very new and challenging reality for us
Yikes! but what if as a result of global warming, a new ecosystem were to come to life? or rather, an old forgotten one. An ecosystem of microbes that have been trapped frozen, that might be freed by the mass melting happening. Surprisingly, these microbes are frozen not in ice caps or bergs, but in soil! These creatures, frozen millions of years ago, may be emerging from the permafrost. These pathogens aren’t new, but they would present a very new and challenging reality for us.
Permafrost is soil that is permanently “frosty”. It can consist of soil, sand and gravel that is consistently bound by ice, either on land or below the oceans, anywhere where it stays cold enough (below 0°C), for at least 2 years. 15% of the Northern Hemisphere contains permafrost; what if this number became 0%?
This percentage decrease isn’t immediate, or nearly quickly enough for us to see in our lives, but this 15% is reducing rapidly enough that we need to start making changes. Ice is melting, quickly; ice in Greenland and Antarctica is melting three times as fast as in the 1990s.
these ancient pathogens could take over the natives, deeply impacting the ecosystems
If these ‘time-travelling’ pathogens do wake up, what might this mean for the planet and its future? Recent research published in July used computer simulations to predict outcomes on ecosystems of ancient microbes being released, the “invader” (ancient) versus the “native” (present), and how they would battle it out. Their findings show, that due to the huge number of pathogens that are being released every day, even though the risk of pathogens impacting the ecosystems of earth is low (~ 5%), it is still a large enough risk to be an important and worryingly unpredictable threat.
The 5% risk is that these ancient pathogens could take over the natives, deeply impacting the ecosystems. However, in the rest of cases, the ancient microbes would simply become established in our current food web, without making any significant impact, positive or negative.
the chances of deadly microbes wiping out all of us is exponentially slim, and is very unlikely to occur in our lifetime
But where is it cold enough for this to happen? The Arctic, and other sufficiently cold locations such as Northern China and Russia. However, this doesn’t mean that the effects won’t also impact us in the UK; the earth’s ecosystems are all interconnected – what drastically affects our Northern neighbours will likely change the way we live as well.
So what might this mean from the future of humanity? Well, the chances of deadly microbes wiping out all of us is exponentially slim, and is very unlikely to occur in our lifetime. The biggest realistic risk is ecological change which means that our food webs could be affected – e.g. bananas might be outcompeted by an ancient microbe, or tuna may die out due to an ancient pathogen.
We can work to reduce these impacts of climate change, as students, through being more sustainable in our day-to-day lives. Even though these outbreaks aren’t likely, if one does happens, it will present big problems. So fingers crossed, these pathogens stay frozen, in ice and time, and these horror stories stay confined to science-fiction books.
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