Could Ancient Viruses Be Trapped in Glaciers?

Have you ever witnessed the magnificence of a glacier? If you haven’t had the chance yet and desire to do so, you better hurry! As many of our Wonder Friends know, the world’s glaciers are gradually disappearing. Year after year, they diminish in size as icebergs break off and drift away.

However, the melting glaciers not only release icebergs but also harbor ancient viruses and bacteria. And as the ice thaws, some of them might be reawakening.

In 2015, scientists gathered ice samples from a glacier in Tibet that dates back 15,000 years. They aimed to gain insights into the history of life in the area. What did they discover? The scientists identified 28 new virus genuses preserved in the ice.

Experts believe that these ancient viruses hold valuable information. They anticipate uncovering the secrets of microbial survival, which could be beneficial in dealing with new viruses emerging due to the Earth’s changing climate.

However, there are concerns about the consequences of releasing these species through melting ice. Could these viruses and bacteria pose health risks to humans? So far, the viruses found in the Tibetan glacier only appear to infect amoebas, suggesting they might not be a threat to people. But melting ice in other parts of the world could present a different scenario.

In 2016, Siberia experienced a heatwave, causing the permafrost in the region to melt. Permafrost is a layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year. As the ground warmed, bacteria were released, leading to a widespread Anthrax outbreak in the area.

This is not the only instance of thawed microbes causing problems. In 2017, a teacher in Alaska contracted a skin infection after handling thawed seal carcasses during an archaeology trip. The bacteria, which had been frozen with the seals in permafrost for many years, infected him.

How concerned should we be about the escape of viruses and bacteria from melting ice? Most experts are not sounding the alarm bells just yet. Instead, scientists are more worried about the missed opportunities for learning as the ice melts. They fear that numerous microbes will be lost to time.

Is there any hope for saving the world’s glaciers? Most experts believe that it is unlikely, as the planet has already experienced significant warming. However, there is still time to prevent many other severe consequences of climate change. Have a conversation with a family member today about what you can do to protect the environment.

Give It a Try

Are you ready to continue learning? Seek assistance from an adult as you engage in the activities below!

  • Are you interested in studying microorganisms through a microscope in the future? Why not start now? Take a look at these up-close pictures of viruses and bacteria. What other objects would you like to examine under a microscope? Discuss it with a friend or family member.
  • Not only ancient viruses and bacteria have been discovered in melting ice. Read more about the finding of the Iceman. Who was the Iceman? Summarize what you learned for a friend or family member.
  • Many experts predict that all of Earth’s glaciers will melt in the 21st century. How might this impact human life? Can people take any actions to help? Make a list of other questions you have about glaciers. Then, ask an adult to assist you in conducting online research or visiting your local library to find answers.

Sources of Wonder

  • https://www.livescience.com/unknown-viruses-discovered-tibetan-glacier.html (accessed 28 Sept. 2020)
  • https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/01/24/575974220/are-there-zombie-viruses-in-the-thawing-permafrost (accessed 28 Sept. 2020)
  • http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up (accessed 28 Sept. 2020)
  • https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a30643717/viruses-found-melting-glacier/ (accessed 28 Sept. 2020)
  • https://time.com/96173/antarctic-glacier-loss-is-unstoppable-study-says/ (accessed 28 Sept. 2020)
  • https://climate.nasa.gov/faq/16/is-it-too-late-to-prevent-climate-change/ (accessed 28 Sept. 2020)

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