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How thawing permafrost & melting Arctic ice can trigger another pandemic? Climate Change Impact

How thawing permafrost & melting Arctic ice can trigger another pandemic? Climate Change Impact


  • GS 3 || Environment || Climate Change || Tackling Climate Change

Why in news?

The latest IPCC report has warned that increasing global warming will result in reductions in Arctic permafrost and the thawing of the ground is expected to release greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide.

Present context:

  • Defined as ground (soil, rock and any included ice or organic material) that remains at or below zero degree Celsius for at least two consecutive years,
  • Permafrost is spread across an area of over 23 million square kilometers, covering about 15% of the land area of the globe.

What is permafrost? 

  • While permafrost is constantly frozen, the surface layer that covers it (referred to as the “active layer”) does not have to be. Colourful tundra flora, for example, carpets thousands of kilometers of permafrost in Canada and Russia.
  • Permafrost is ground that has been totally frozen for at least two years at 0 degrees Celsius or below.
  • The permanently frozen earth, consisting of soil, sand, and rock locked together by ice, is thought to have developed throughout glacial periods stretching back millennia.
  • These grounds are thought to cover less than 22% of the Earth’s land surface, primarily in arctic regions and mountainous areas.
  • Its thickness decreases as it moves south, and it is influenced by a variety of elements such as the Earth’s internal heat, snow and plant cover, the existence of water bodies, and terrain..
  • They are spread across:
    • They cover 55 percent of Russia and Canada’s landmass, 85 percent of Alaska’s landmass, and potentially the whole continent of Antarctica.
    • It creates a 1,500-meter-thick layer in northern Siberia and a 740-meter-thick layer in northern Alaska.
    • Permafrost is found at high altitudes at lower latitudes, such as the Alps and the Tibetan plateau.

Associated Issues withthe Thawing of Permafrost:

  • Highlight Climate Change: Temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as quickly as they are in other areas of the planet. As a result, the permafrost, which had been frozen all year, is melting.
    • The thawing of permafrost will exacerbate the consequences of the climate catastrophe by releasing stored carbon, and the loss of sea ice and ice sheets covering land would hasten the rise in temperatures (As Ice has more albedo than Water).
  • Prevalence of Zoonotic Diseases: Warming temperatures are creating changes in the habitats of wild animals that can transmit avian flu, such as ducks and geese.
    • Russia has previously reported the first instance of H5N8 avian flu transmission from birds to people.
    • Changes in the habitats of other wild animals, such as foxes, might potentially spread rabies more widely.
  • Tropical Challenges Expanding to Higher Latitudes: Diseases that have traditionally affected the equatorial belt are now expanding to higher latitudes. Many of these illnesses are carried by mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects.
    • Every year, the West Nile virus kills hundreds of people in the United States, where it was originally discovered in 1999.
    • West Nile will become more common in Canada, especially regions of the Arctic, as temperatures rise.
  • Spread:
    • Anthrax is a severe infectious illness caused by bacteria that may survive in the form of spores.
    • Anthrax spores may survive in frozen soil and ice for at least a few decades.
    • More disease outbreaks may occur as diseased animal corpses (including those of extinct mammoths) thaw.
  • Viruses and Bacteria on the Rise: Scientists are concerned about the spread of viruses and bacteria when permafrost and ice melt. Anthrax was discovered in a remote region of Siberia in the summer of 2016, infecting dozens of individuals and killing a small kid. Approximately 2,300 reindeer died as a result of the epidemic.
  • Virus Samples from Tibetan Plateau: These conditions are not restricted to the Arctic alone. Glacial ice that has persisted for thousands of years is melting.
    • Recently, 15,000-year-old-viruses (including 28 different kinds identified for the first time) were found in glacial ice from the Tibetan Plateau.
  • Epidemics and Pandemics: The development of viruses and bacteria with the ability to create epidemics is another source of concern. These pathogenic bacteria might have been dormant for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
    • Permafrost has been utilized to recover genetic material from the H1N1 influenza virus that caused the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, as well as smallpox.
    • Because people are no longer routinely vaccinated, the reemergence of a virus like smallpox (which has been eliminated) would be alarming.

What will be the immediate effects as permafrost melts due to increasing global temperatures?

  • The first impacts that are very rapid will affect countries where roads or buildings were constructed on permafrost.The Russian railways are an example.
  • In the northwest of Canada, now we have a short section of the road where it has been necessary to chill the ground to make the foundation of the road colder than it is, in order to preserve the permafrost.
  • And for the 500 metres of road, the expense was $4 million.
  • But the biggest international problem is to do with the potential for organic material, which is now entombed and frozen in the ground.
  • If the ground begins to thaw, this material will become available for microbiota to break down.
  • In some environments, the biota will release carbon dioxide, and in others release methane which is about 25 to 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
  • The total quantity of carbon that is now buried in the permafrost is estimated at about 1500 billion tonnes and the top three meters of the ground has about 1000 billion tonn
  • The world currently emits into the atmosphere, approximately 10 billion tonnes of carbon a year.
  • So, if the permafrost thaws and releases even only one per cent of the frozen carbon in any one year, it can nullify anything that we do about industrial emissions.

Can thawing permafrost release new bacteria or viruses? Can it cause another pandemic?

  • Permafrost has many secrets. We recently found mammoths in the permafrost in Russia.
  • And some of these mammoth carcasses when they begin to degrade again may reveal bacteria that were frozen thousands of years ago.
  • So there will be surprises. But whether they will be lethal surprises is just not possible to say.
  • Let’s also remember that when the permafrost was formed thousands of years ago, there weren’t many humans who lived in that region which was necessarily very cold.
  • And as you know, the number of diseases that you can find in India is much greater than the number of diseases you find in Greenland.
  • The environment now is so much more suitable than during the Ice Age for not just human life, but also the evolution or development of viruses and bacteria.

Need more studies:

  • The majority of the effort so far has been on estimating how much carbon is in the permafrost.That’s where the scientific effort has been.
  • Currently, there is some evidence, the first evidence was published in 2019, that some permafrost regions have changed from being a carbon storehouse to being places that are net emitters of carbon.
  • Another thing, which we need to study and which is a great concern to many of us, is the increase in the number of forest fires.This year Russia witnessed a forest fire whose total area was the size of Portugal.

What are those step that needed to be taken in future?

  • Slow Erosion: The scientific magazine Nature proposed constructing a 100-meter-long dam in front of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland, which is the glacier most impacted by Arctic melting.
  • Stop Rapid Climate Change: To prevent climate change and maintain the permafrost, global CO2 emissions must be cut by 45 percent over the next decade and nil by 2050. It is necessary to take worldwide collaborative action to minimize climate change. If one nation reduces its emissions, it will be ineffective unless the others do so as well.
  • Increase Their Thickness: Some scientists offer a method for producing more ice. Their plan entails gathering ice from beneath the glacier using wind-powered pumps and spreading it over the higher ice caps, where it will solidify and reinforce the consistency.
  • The Public’s Awareness: The tundra and the permafrost underneath it may appear far away, yet our daily actions contribute to climate change regardless of where we live. We can help protect the world’s permafrost and avoid a vicious cycle of an ever-warming globe by decreasing our carbon footprint, investing in energy-efficient goods, and supporting climate-friendly businesses, legislation, and policies.
  • Combine Artificial Icebergs: A prize has been given to an Indonesian architect for his project Refreeze the Arctic, which involves collecting water from melted glaciers, desalinating it, and refreezing it to produce enormous hexagonal ice blocks. These icebergs may then be joined to form frozen masses due to their shape.


Climate change and global warming must become a key priority for every country’s foreign policy. This is a crucial step that we must take, and the sooner we do so, the bigger the benefit from our own climate initiatives will be.