how our warming planet may lead to a rise in epidemics and global health crises
In the coming years with our warming planet, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) may be just the beginning of a rise in epidemics and global health crises. Statistics and science continue to show our undeniable impact on Earth’s warming climate as well as the consequences that have and may come. Since 1880, the globe’s temperature has increased on average by 1.9℉, and it appears we are on a skyrocketing path up, with predictions that in the next century, temperatures will rise on average another 4 to 8 degrees. Global warming has been shown to have numerous effects on the planet, and many more have yet to be uncovered.
In recent times, the correlation between global warming and proliferating diseases has gained mounting evidence. Studies are showing that as temperatures continue to rise, as will the number of diseases, outbreaks, and health issues. Warmer temperatures and new weather patterns are predicted to lead towards an inflammation of infectious disease rates; Germs, mosquitoes, and other disease vectors are showing evidence that vectors are shifting and they are and will continue to survive and spread better in the new world we’re creating; the thawing of permafrost is uncovering diseases of the past, from eradicated 18th to 19th century plagues and disease to the new yet ancient viruses of our ancestors.
In this presentation, we consider the various effects that climate change will have on epidemics and ways we might mitigate the risks.
How might global warming affect epidemics and disease?
Vector-borne diseases are Bacteria, viruses, and parasites that blood-feeding insects and ticks pass among humans. Vector-borne diseases account for 17% of all infectious diseases, according to WHO, and will likely experience the most significant upsurge with the warming of Earth. The Culicidae family are the primary spreaders of “vector-borne” diseases and include approximately 3,500 known species of small insects such as the mosquito and aedes albopictus. Warmer temperatures are accelerating mosquito development and allowing them to bit more frequently, grow viruses quicker, and digest blood bester. Mosquitoes aren’t the only disease vector thriving in the changing climate; Ticks are doing alarmingly well too. Rising temperatures and warmer winters mean more ticks will be able to complete the full cycle from larva to nymph to adult. Typically, a tick needs two to three years of favorable weather to grow into an effective vector, which with warmer temperatures, it will be able to do so more and more. Scientists estimate that a 2-degree Celsius increase in annual average temperature could increase the adult tick population by more than 20 percent.
The tale of Pandora’s box is one of Greek mythology that’s been passed down dozens of generations as one personifying the paradoxical nature of the mysterious and suggesting the extreme consequences of tampering with or uncovering the unknown.
Around a tenth of planet Earth’s land surface is covered with glacial ice, containing approximately 24 million cubic km of water locked as ice, and in the Northern hemisphere, 24% of the land surface is made up of permafrost. Permafrost is soil, rock or sediment that is frozen for more than two consecutive years. They are formed with snow fall, in which air, water, soil, and recently living things are trapped in ice and, over time, with seasonal changes, are compacted into ice sheets. Because of the way these layers are formed, ice is generally very good at preserving ecological and environmental conditions.
Permafrost gets its name from the idea that it is permanently frozen ground; permanent and frost. However, with global warming and climate change, these icy blocks are appearing to be less permanent than anticipated. According to studies, human emissions have driven the planet’s average surface temperature to rise approximately 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century and rapid decline of ice sheets and glaciers, with an estimated decrease of 18.25% of the arctic ice per decade and 427 gigatons of ice sheets disappearing per year according to NASA. Studies have shown not only the significant effects of climate change on these areas but hypotheses about what the future may hold as well in terms of what lies within the ice.
Many glaciers and permafrost are likely hundreds of thousands of years –with Antarctica’s oldest glacier estimated to be approaching a million years old. This doesn’t just mean really old water, rather, we have been able to uncover pieces of Earth’s past from the ice. The time capsule of ice has allowed for the uncovering of mammoths, dinosaurs, saber toothed cats, our ancestors, and many more… including bacteria and viruses. Permafrost is unique in that once living organisms don’t decompose, but, instead, are cryogenically preserved in the ice. In theory, we’re safe from the curiosities of the past as, again, ice is generally very good at preserving ecological and environmental conditions. Unfortunately, as the myth goes, humanity may find itself revealing the unknown contents of Pandora’s box–or in this case, permafrost–, and, with it, unforeseeable consequences.
The permafrost can preserve microorganisms that are up to a few hundreds of thousands of years old. Thus, as the ice melts, we may be re exposed to not only the victims of smallpox, Spanish flu, bubonic plague and other 18th and 19th century eradicated diseases, but the prehistoric diseases themselves as well, some of which we don’t have a cure for. Viruses and bacteria that were previously unknown may emerge as well. While they may be dormant, they can be revived; in fact, scientists have taken 8 million year old bacteria and brought it back to life.
While the idea of a pandemic emerging from the permafrost may seem merely hypothetical, but in recent years some otherwise mysterious cases are proving otherwise. In a remote corner of Siberian tundra known as the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle, August of 2016, an outbreak of anthrax led to the death of a 12 year old boy and at least 20 people hospitalized. The origin of the anthrax virus, which is considered to have generally died out in the mid to late 1900s, is theorized to come from an infected reindeer over 75 years ago which has re emerged from the frost during the heatwave in the summer of 2016, which exposed the reindeer corpse and released infectious anthrax into nearby water and soil, and then into the food supply. More than 2,000 reindeer grazing nearby became infected, which then led to the small number of human cases. The fear is that this will not be an isolated case. In the early 20th Century alone, more than a million reindeer died from anthrax and since it isn’t easy to dig deep graves, most of these carcasses are buried close to the surface, scattered among 7,000 burial grounds in northern Russia. In the 1890s there was a major epidemic of smallpox in Siberia, killing up to 40% of a small town’s population. Their bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost on the banks of the Kolyma River. 120 years later, Kolyma’s floodwaters have started eroding the banks, and the melting of the permafrost has sped up this erosion process. Researchers have found bodies with sores characteristic of the marks left by smallpox and while they did not find the smallpox virus itself, they have detected fragments of its DNA.
The frost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, given it’s cold, has no oxygen, and is dark. Although there is controversy around whether or not we are at risk of these germs given the extreme climates of permafrost, it is suspected germs that are able to form spores (such as anthrax, tetanus, Clostridium botulinum) or are considered giant are able to to survive the cold. If an outbreak were to occur, of the currently known viruses it would likely be due to the giant viruses as the virions tend to be very extremely resilient. Global warming may not be the only thing to re expose these viruses; oil drilling, mining, and human production could uncover some of these dangers even quicker than climate change might. New viruses and bacteria have been uncovered, and despite having been isolated for thousands of years, some have shown to be naturally resistant to antibiotics. In a study published in December 2016, researchers found that the bacteria, known as Paenibacillus sp. LC231, was resistant to 70% of antibiotics and was able to totally inactivate many of them.
One of the scariest parts about these mysterious prehistoric diseases is that modern day life will very likely have virtually no immune protection against them. The immune system is able to fight pathogens it can recognize, and it is very highly unlikely our bodies will be able to recognize the new (or rather, ancient) viruses and diseases.
Even if an epidemic does not occur from Pandora’s permafrost, another issue will almost certainly arise with the melting of the ice. The sheer quantity of microbes trapped in the glaciers worldwide are estimated to hold 1,000 times the biomass of all humans on Earth. A chunk of glacier could go out to sea and severely disrupt aquatic ecosystems. Even if the microbes are dormant, or even dead, they will represent an entirely new source of nutrients to the ecosystem and thus cause a planktonic boom. As microscopic algae proliferate in one concentrated area, the oxygen in the water is used up and starves the surrounding oxygen reliant life of air.
Climate change may seem to be a problem of the future, and with the endless stream of political throw downs and masses of false information, it’s easy to try to ignore the problem or pretend it doesn’t exist.
In reality, the longer we avoid the very present realities of climate change, the worse the problem grows. Recognizing, researching, and spreading awareness of how global warming is impacting public health, the better chance we have of mitigating the effects.
Even now, with the coronavirus, we are able to witness some of the horrors of epidemics, but with the problem at hand, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) may be just the beginning if we remain ignorant.
What We Can Do
Thanks to science and engineering, clean energy technology is “ready to go whenever”, and has been for almost a decade. A 100 x 100 mile section of solar panels in the desert has the potential to power the entirety of the USA alone. The entire world could be powered by covering just 1% of the Sahara desert with solar panels. With this sort of energy, carbon emissions would significantly decrease as would global warming and it’s effects.
So… why haven’t we changed?
- Science and protests for change are often discredited by fossil fuel industries, who risk losing their profit if the world were to rely on sustainable, renewable, or solar energy.
- Such changes would be mean massive economic, political and technological shifts.
- Huge amounts of resources such as materials, workforce and funding are also required
- Capital Costs
- Market Entry
- Misinformation about renewable energy
- The change would be detrimental in the short term, but greatly improve the world in the long term
What I can do as an individual?
We are not helpless as individuals! Every person counts, and if every individual commits, even just a little, we can help change the world for the better.
- Reduce your carbon footprint
- Wash your hands!
- Learn more with credible sources
- Spread awareness
With global warming, we may be part of the cause, but we can also be part of the solution
In the comment section, let me know
- How else might we reduce the effects of global warming on epidemics
- Do you think COVID-19 has to do with global warming?
- Do you think we will see more epidemics in the future because of climate change?
- If you have heard of this issue before
- Any remaining comments, questions, or reactions 🙂