Warming climate may free North Pole’s frozen prehistoric viruses in new pandemic

A new deadly pandemic could be unleashed by climate change, as melting ice in the Arctic allows ancient viruses and bacteria to thaw out from a million-year deep freeze.

Senior Russian diplomat Nikolay Korchunov told TV channel Zvezda that the Russian government has proposed a project on biosafety to the Arctic Council to guard against unexpected hazards emerging from the melting permafrost.

“There is a risk of old viruses and bacteria waking up,” Korchunov explained.

“Because of this, Russia has initiated a ‘biosafety’ project within the Arctic Council”.

He said that the new project would have to work on assessing a wide range of “risks and hazards” that could potentially lead to the release of “future infectious diseases.”

A wide area of Russian territory in and around the Arctic Circle is composed of frozen soil, or permafrost, dating back to before the last Ice Age.

Sergei Davydov, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Science Northeastern Research and Experimental Station in the village of Chersky, warns that the permafrost is melting rapidly.

"We have been conducting research for over 30 years now, since 1990,” he says.

“For example," he added, "the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere went from 360 to 410. The amount of methane in the atmosphere has increased significantly as we know from gas analyser data.

"The permafrost has warmed up significantly by one and, in some areas, two degrees in a matter of one decade”.

He warns that that the permafrost has not melted in millions of years, and that ancient viruses, which haven’t been exposed to the air since before modern humans evolved, would be released.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has also spoken of the threat from melting permafrost, although he focused largely on its economic impact.

“It affects pipeline systems, residential districts built on permafrost, and so on,” he explained. “If as much as 25% of the near-surface layers of permafrost, which is about three or four meters, melt by 2100, we will feel the effect very strongly.”

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