Researchers warn that the Arctic could unleash the next pandemic

It all has to do with global warming.
Loukia Papadopoulos
A melting Arctic leads to more viruses.jpg
A melting Arctic leads to more viruses.

Mlenny/iStock 

In a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences on Wednesday, researchers are warning that global warming may make the Arctic a hotbed for pandemics.

An increase in spillover risk

The scientists studied soil and lake sediment from Lake Hazen, the largest lake by volume north of the Arctic Circle, and used segments of DNA and RNA to identify the viruses present in the environment.

The team then used a computer algorithm to figure out the viral spillover risk. This term refers to the ability for viruses to flood into new host species and keep spreading.

"Spillover risk increases with runoff from glacier melt, a proxy for climate change," wrote the researchers.

"Should climate change also shift species range of potential viral vectors and reservoirs northwards, the High Arctic could become fertile ground for emerging pandemics."

The researchers however did note that the risk of such extreme consequences unfolding still remains low. Instead they focused more on providing a new way of determining spillover risk.

“Altogether, we provided here a novel approach to assessing spillover risk. This is not the same as predicting spillovers or even pandemics, first because we rely on known virus/host associations, and also because as long as viruses and their ‘bridge vectors’ are not simultaneously present in the environment, the likelihood of dramatic events probably remains low,” explained the researchers in their paper.

Researchers warn that the Arctic could unleash the next pandemic
The Arctic is a hotbed for viruses.

More research needs to be done

Despite that the researchers did indicate that more work needed to be done to monitor the evolution of the Arctics’s melting and the introduction of new potential viruses.

This is especially true if global warming will force populations to move further north to avoid extreme temperatures bringing human beings ever closer to both animal populations and the Arctic sources of new viruses.

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“As climate change leads to shifts in species ranges and distributions, new associations can emerge, bringing in vectors that can mediate viral spillovers, as simulations recently highlight. This twofold effect of climate change, both increasing spillover risk and leading to a northward shift in species ranges, could have dramatic effect in the High Arctic. Disentangling this risk from actual spillovers and pandemics will be a critical endeavor to pursue in parallel with surveillance activities, in order to mitigate the impact of spillovers on economy and health-related aspects of human life, or on other species.” concluded the researchers.

The Arctic has been severely affected by global warming with a third of Arctic Ocean winter ice having disappeared in just the last few decades. Studies have shown that the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the world over the past 43 years. This means the Arctic is, on average, around 3℃ warmer than it was in 1980.

These new threats of emerging pandemics only amplify how much we need to get global warming under control and why action needs to be swift and efficient.

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