Climate Change Peril: Scientists Find 28 New Viruses In Glacial Melt Water

Ian Cuming—Getty Images/Ikon Images

Duane Townsend

Popular Mechanics - January 23, 2020

It's the stuff of a Stephen King novel.

Researchers from China and the U.S. embarked on a field trip to Tibet in 2015, and discovered 28 previously undiscovered virus groups—in a melting glacier. They recently detailed their findings in a paper posted to the non-peer reviewed pre-print website bioRxiv.

The researchers drilled a 164-foot hole into the glacier, gathered two ice core samples from the 15,000-year-old glacier, and then later identified them in a lab. In total, they identified 33 virus groups—28 of which were completely new to science.

From Tibet to the Arctic to Antarctica, glaciers and ice caps around the world are melting at alarming rates. Scientists are racing the clock and climate change to collect, identify, and catalogue the microbes found in ancient ice. Having a record of these bacteria, viruses, and fungi paints a sharper picture of our prehistoric past and could be valuable for use in studying future pathogens.

Meltwater from glaciers and ice caps could ferry harmful pathogens along streams, rivers, and other important waterways, potentially exposing humans to new microbes, the researchers report. But ice isn't the only thing that's melting. Thawing permafrost, a frozen layer of earth found in high latitudes and at elevation, creates its own unique set of challenges.

Gases like methane and carbon dioxide, which have been trapped in the long-frozen earth, are being released into the atmosphere at alarming rates. Permafrost houses twice as much carbon than what's currently found in the atmosphere, climate change scientist Sue Natali of the Woods Hole Research Center told the BBC.

In recent years, researchers have pulled samples of smallpox, Spanish flu, bubonic plague, and even anthrax from thawing permafrost. Scientists have also found harmful pollutants, such as mercury, trapped in the reservoirs beneath Alaskan permafrost. ...
Read full report at Popular Mechanics

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