The melting Arctic gives scientists valuable access to long-dead viruses

Climate change is unlocking a vault of biological mysteries that may help us keep some of the deadliest diseases at bay.
Gates of the Arctic National Park
After permafrost at Gates of the Arctic National Park thawed, the landscape changed, allowing the Okokmilaga River to flow to the sea. National Park Service Climate Change Response

This story was published in partnership with Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art, and culture.

For decades, the Inuit woman, a victim of the 1918 Spanish flu, lay buried in a mass grave under six feet of Alaskan permafrost. But when the frozen ground began to thaw in the 1990s, the Inuit town of Brevig Mission gave scientists permission to dig her up. Her ample body fat kept her lungs insulated against warmer temperatures, helping to preserve the fragments of the virus that lay within.

Thanks to this discovery, researchers were able to decipher the virus’s genetic blueprint, which recently allowed them to understand why the 1918 flu had been so lethal. They say their insights will help public health experts better prepare for the next pandemic.

This is potentially one small upside of a slow-moving disaster in the Arctic. Rising temperatures are melting permafrost, releasing huge sums of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas. But as the earth thaws, it also could reveal the origins of many diseases, such as scarlet fever or the coronavirus, helping scientists understand past outbreaks and cope with new ones.

“We can’t predict the future, but by understanding the past we have clues about what might happen,” says David Morens, a senior advisor to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and co-author of a 2007 paper on the discovery of Spanish flu particles in Alaska. It took 10 years to determine the flu’s genetic makeup, he said, comparing their work to gluing together thousands of pieces of a shattered teacup. (Today, thanks to technological advances, the work would take mere days.)

Finally, in a study published last year, Moren’s team identified the gene in the 1918 strain that caused the disease to become so deadly. They also determined that the pandemics of 1957, 1968 and 2009 were caused by viruses descended from the 1918 strain.

“We now know that the 1918 virus was very close genetically to a bird virus that exists today,” Morens says.

Soldiers with Spanish flu at a hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas in 1918.
Soldiers are treated for Spanish flu at a hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas in 1918. National Archives

In another paper published last year, scientists detailed how their research could be used to develop a universal flu vaccine, which could provide protection against several different strains and obviate the need for an annual vaccination. These revelations are among the many secrets that lay beneath frozen Arctic ground.

“It’s like a time capsule. We have been studying them going forward, and now we are able to also go backward,” Morens says. “The more the Earth warms, the more sources of viruses will be revealed. It’s hard to know what we’re going to find, but my sense is that as we look for viruses and other organisms in newer places, we will find them.”

To be sure, this is a young research field. Scientists have only just begun to recognize the research potential of thawing permafrost. At some point, experts say, they may even find samples of ancient coronaviruses. If they do, virologists may learn a few things that would help them combat the current epidemic.

“Coronaviruses are everywhere,” says Robert T. Schooley, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California San Diego. “They are found in bats and other mammals, and these infected animals die and get buried in the frozen ground too.”

While there is a tiny danger that scientists resurrect dormant diseases buried underground, many researchers believe it’s worth the risk to better understand the origin of deadly illnesses. And they say the threats are remote when they take the right precautions. In the case of the Spanish flu, for example, the viral fragments were essentially dead. They could only be grown in a lab.

Among the many wonders to emerge from the Arctic soil are bacteriophages—viruses that kill bacteria. Scientists are studying them for their potential to thwart life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Because each bacteriophage targets a different bacteria, every new strain discovered adds to the growing arsenal of treatments. Long-buried ones also provide hints about the nature of ancient bacteria that existed thousands of years ago.

“There are tons of bacteriophages, and they will be the same ones that were buried when the permafrost was first laid down. By studying them, it will tell us what bacteria they were able to kill during those times,” Schooley says.

Scientists also discovered a type of “giant virus” in a 30,000-year-old sample of Siberian permafrost. Though microscopic, it is huge compared to conventional viruses. Despite the fear-inducing name, the strain uncovered in Siberia is not a threat to humans.

Not every microbe buried in the permafrost is so benign, however. And while scientists are careful to contain deadly diseases, some may come to life on their own. For instance, the thawing of a 75-year-old dead reindeer carcass infected with anthrax is believed to be the cause of a 2016 anthrax outbreak in Siberia that sickened dozens of people and killed one child.

Production of the smallpox vaccine.
Workers produce smallpox vaccine. Pan American Health Organization

While heat kills almost all viruses, some rare types, such as smallpox, could survive a thaw, according to Stephen Morse, an infectious diseases expert and professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. In 1980 the World Health Organization declared the disease had been eradicated, but melting permafrost could potentially bring it back.

“If it’s dry enough, it will do well in warm conditions, as it’s a pretty hardy virus,” Morse says. He adds that, previously, scientists couldn’t imagine smallpox returning from the grave, but rising temperatures have made it a distinct possibility. “The idea was far-fetched. But now, with climate change, it seems like it’s not an impossible scenario,” he says.

Climate change is causing permafrost to melt at an alarming rate. While Arctic permafrost currently covers an area larger than Russia, by the end of the century, it could shrink to an area smaller than Alaska, according to one estimate.

Frozen methane bubbles
Frozen methane bubbles are capture in the Arctic ice. U.S. Geological Survey/ Miriam Jones

“It is concerning because there is such a large amount of carbon,” says Janet Jansson, chief scientist for biology in the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s biological sciences division. She studies how largely dormant microbes trapped in the permafrost wake up when the ground melts. Those microbes start to gobble up decomposed plants and spew out planet-warming gasses.

That would be a serious problem, according to Robert Max Holmes, deputy director and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Arctic permafrost contains twice as much carbon as is currently found in the atmosphere. Even a little warming could liberate a vast store of buried carbon, he says.

“It has built up over tens of thousands of years, and that’s the big thing we should be worried about,” he adds. “Once that train leaves the station, it will be harder to put the brakes on. Once it starts, it will be hard to stop.”

The silver lining, however slim, is that melting permafrost could also lead to a host of new life-saving discoveries. Climate change is unlocking a vault of biological mysteries that may help scientists keep some of the deadliest diseases at bay.

“That environment contains lots of secrets,” Morens says. “As we change and release these things, it’s impossible to predict what surprises we might find.”