The Permafrost Pandemic

Andrew Kim, Staff Writer

It is that time of year. Winter and its ensuing cold are coming and white snow will be falling, or will it? The world is heating up, and it is heating up rapidly. Even with extended measures to limit pollution, harmful greenhouse gases are still being released into the atmosphere, causing the worldwide phenomenon of global warming. There are obvious effects of global warming that we can observe. For example, in Issaquah, many have noticed the change in the extremity of our climate with increasingly hot, dry summers and freezing cold winters. However, extreme climate changes are not the only consequence of global warming: permafrost melting is becoming a much more pressing matter. According to National Geographic, permafrost is a permanently frozen layer on or under Earth’s surface, but with the rising issue of global warming, many areas around the world holding permafrost like Alaska and Siberia are seeing increased melting in the permafrost. This results in sinkholes, unstable grounds, and potential damage to utility pipes.

The melting permafrost holds another lurking danger, one we are all too familiar with. As the Smithsonian Magazine reports along with many other news sources, scientists have recently been able to revive a 48,500-year-old virus that still retains its abilities to infect and replicate, albeit only among amoebas so far. This immense finding widens the possibilities of many viruses never seen before potentially rising from the thawing permafrost and causing many health risks for humans. Matching the infamous COVID, these old viruses have never been encountered before by our immune system which can lead to the deadly potential of even more pandemics in the future. Sophomore Niko Cornell believes that there is a “75% [chance] in the near future and a 100% [chance] in the far future” of another major pandemic hitting the world. Those chances seem to be getting higher and higher as global warming’s effects start to become more noticeable and impactful on the world’s climate.

Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been mining the earth for valuable metals and resources, releasing harmful chemicals and pollutants worldwide in the process. In fact, according to the European Space Agency, the Arctic contains many natural metal deposits, including arsenic, mercury, and nickel, which have been mined for decades and have caused huge contamination from waste material across tens of millions of hectares. Now-banned pollutants and chemicals, such as the insecticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) that were transported to the Arctic atmospherically and over time became trapped in permafrost, are at risk of re-permeating the atmosphere. An even more concerning issue is all the unknowns in the process of re-permeation, with many scientists saying that it is “poorly understood and largely unquantified.” The Arctic has been warming nearly four times faster than the rest of the world over the past 43 years, leading to massive melting of permafrost and the possible reawakening of deadly viruses that could date back even longer than 50,000 years.

The chances for a major pandemic in the future seem to be high with junior Tarun Shivakumar, freshman Chloe Chan, and senior Kathryn Dennis all saying the chances of another significant pandemic are 75%, 50%, and 60%, respectively. Even though we still do not know much about ancient viruses, their potential to impact the world even more than COVID is something that is scary to even think about. Dennis says that “we’re not ready at all both mentally and physically [for a new pandemic].” With new and different viruses, the consequences of pandemics in the future could be much worse than what COVID had done over the past few years. Countries still have not recovered from the effects of the pandemic with many restaurants and local businesses going out of business, and many people still unemployed. It is crucial that more information is obtained on the melting permafrost so that there could be a better risk assessment of permafrost and therefore, a better risk-prevention system that will benefit the very safety of humanity.

As Cornell puts it, “life is a race. We are in first place and extinction is right behind us. If we stop running, it will catch up.” The only thing that is endangering our species is ourselves with our own governments choosing to ignore global warming or refusing to finance projects. For example, on June 2nd, 2017, former president Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, severely impacting the resources and capabilities of other countries in fighting and stopping global warming. With one sole person having the ability to undermine years of efforts fighting global warming, society will never be able to prevent its eventual doom. Chan states that “there are specific countries scattered around the world that are trying to prevent climate change and are advocating for it, but [not] enough countries are bringing enough attention to it right now.” Although there is not enough support from countries, Cornell says that “it is possible but difficult to completely reverse climate change. [However], countries need to have a lot of money, something that not all nations have available to spend on future solutions.” Agreeing with Cornell, Shivakumar states that “there are ways to limit the consequences [of climate change]” and that “it is possible to completely reverse climate change.”

In the end, we still have time, but it is up to us humans to determine how we spend it and for what reasons. Instead of spending time on violence and wars, efforts need to be made to stop climate change or at least limit its effects. If we do not, not only will immense damage be done to coastal cities, but the world could face hundreds more pandemics even worse than Covid-19, and the world will never be the same.