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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2956

There are plagues hidden in the ice, and they're reawakening

By Pitamber Kaushik - Patna, India

This July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. Greenland, the world's largest island lost 11 billion tons of its ice on a single day. Permafrost is ground, including rock or soil, with a temperature that remains at or below the freezing point of water 0 °C for two or more years.

Permafrost holds more than ice - it holds methane, a potent greenhouse gas, it holds a variety of substrates, it holds poisonous mercury, it holds the geological history of the locale and figments of its life in form of perfect fossils of mammoths and homonids, and it holds life... dangerous life, more than that meets the eye. Deep permaforst is a thawing reservoir of ancient microbiota, including pathogens that humanity was effectively quarantined from.

NASA scientists were able to successfully resurrect bacteria from a frozen Alaska pool, that had lain dormant for 32,000 years.

“Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time, perhaps as long as a million years,” writes the BBC’s Jasmin Fox-Skelly.

Ice melt in the Siberian tundra exposed an anthrax-infested reindeer carcass that infected hoardes of live present-day reindeer killing about 2300 of them, several locals claiming 70 of them, and caused a 12-year-old boy's fatality. Children were particularly susceptible to it. All this from a merely 70 year old dead deer. Diggings of Inuit mass graves has revealed the 1918 Spanish Flu virus while three century old ice-mummies preserved in Southern Siberia were revealed to have shown symptoms of smallpox infection.

The ice holds diseases veritably obsolete like anthrax, bubonic plague and tetantus, epidemics of yore that pose grievous threat to modern humans and livestocks.

The Spanish conquistadors arrival in the New Land unleashed a veritable Pandora's Box upon the natives' unacquainted immune systems. The death rates rivalled, by some accounts, even exceeded the Black Death. More than 90% of the population succumbed to relatively moderate ailments, that the Europeans had become, over due course significantly immune to. Commonplace ailments as smallpox, influenza and mumps claimed lives in excess of 20 million in Mexico alone. The cumulative toll of European-brought diseases in the Americas could have ranged from 30 million to 50 million. Lack of predisposed genetic resistance to these semiurban infectious ailments was responsible behind this decimation. Because of no exposure to these strains of pathogens, they were practically alien to native immune systems, while Europeans had evolved in-sync with them, adapting to each of their mutations, advancements, and nuances, slowly and steadily, dealing each of them one-by-one.

Our immune systems are unfamiliar and unacclimatised to these strains and varieties of microbes. In nature, mostly species evolve and strike a competitive rapport, establish a sync with species they coexist with. Prey-predator, host-parasite and host-pathogen effectively ensue a dynamic equilibrium, an evolutionary arms race to outgun each other with fitter, custom measures. It's a system of mutual check-and-balance, a bilateral equilibrium, facilitated by a veritable two-way transparency. In this inadvertent mutual understanding, none stands the risk to get wiped out, and the dependent and the host, both sustain their populations. Because they evolve intimately, constantly interacting with one another, neither of the duo is able to outpace the other, and a balance of proportions, periods and populations, perpetuates.

Evolutionary, this is bad for the pathogen as well, as it would eventually run out of hosts, if it eliminates them all so swiftly. This phenomenon is, in effect, akin to introduction of a novel, lab grown pathogen, artificially unleashed on our world, something we are not adapted to. Novelty renders our immune systems ineffectuate, and their effects outrun its adaptativeness.

In 2013, French scientists had discovered a 30,000 years old giant ovular virion Pithovirus Sibericus frozen in an ice core unearthed from Siberia. Although, it was harmless to humans, it stood in testimony to the resilience of cryo-preserved microbial strains. Disease could have been what caused a number of extinctions - perhaps Neanderthals, and even the dinosaurs. We certainly don't want to unearth such relics. Ice-entrapped methane can cause wildfires which can in turn release deep underlying strata i.e. older and longer-consolidated permafrost.

Kashmiri permafrost is extremely understudied. “Very few studies exist on permafrost and knowledge on permafrost distribution and processes is very limited for this region. It started to receive more attention in the Himalayas in the last few years only,“ said Dr Dorothea Stumm, a senior glaciologist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu, Nepal. However, despite its inaccessibility, Kashmir has yielded a good portion of the few mammalian fossils unearthed in India. Various prehistoric settlements in Kashmir indicate a vibrant and spread out human distribution. Both treatises and contemporary colonisation studies all point towards thriving human and non human biota might lie under the ice.

Many nations, particularly Russia, have expressed interest in unearthing mineral reserves in the vast unexplored icy tracts. India too has expressed mining aspirations in the icy heights of Ladakh and Northern frontiers of Kashmir, particularly for radioactive minerals. However, tampering with the permafrost might yield more than what industrialists bargain for. We know the Kashmir region could have mass graves, and has a diverse lineage of occupation and succession. Alpine Ladakh might be slightly more improbable to have scope for preserved human-borne ailments, but as palaeontological studies in the subcontinent are scarce, it is better to be on the safer side. Both climate change-borne snow recession exposing hitherto permanently-clad areas, as well as undertaking of systematic mining expansion and private misventuring into the Alaskan West, make it a potential hotspot as well, in particular given its longtime status as an important transcontinental migrational juncture as an isthmus.

Outside of the polar ice caps, Chile has one of the world's largest reservoirs of fresh water in the form of ice. Winters have seen superzero temperatures at glacier sites in recent successive years. Glaciers have also compartmentalised accelarating their melting process. Unlike the Himalayas, where organic distribution is rather sparse, the Chilean Andes have routinely yielded microbes. The sheer amount of ice mummies and skeletons that are unearthed in the Chilean highlands give a foreboding of the diversity of microbiota the frost might potentially hold. With previously perennially frozen portions of the glacier melting and exposing underlying layers, and miners expressing a keen interest in expediting out to uncharted prospects, Chile, being one of the important and widely-inhabited Pleistocene sites, must be wary of the potential pathogens locked in its ice.

A little into these enthused ventures into uncharted territories, pun intended, could lie a biological time bomb, a landmine waiting to be unleashed. The only way to avert this blast from the past is to trudge with utmost caution, and not awaken the sleeping beasts we know little of. Due research using extensive sampling, biochemical probes, modelling and simulations could help avoid disastrous consequences, but wellguarded secrets from past geobiological aeons are best left unperturbed.

Pitamber Kaushik : The author is a columnist, journalist, writer, and amateur researcher, having previously written in over 40 newspapers and outlets in 23 countries across all six continents of the world.

- Asian Tribune -

There are plagues hidden in the ice, and they're reawakening
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