Climate Fueled Pandemics to Come

April 12, 2020

Longer piece, worth a read, excerpted here.

David Wallace Wells in New York Magazine:

COVID-19 is not a climate-change pandemic — as far as we know, nothing about the emergence or spread of the coronavirus bears the recognizable imprint of global warming. But if the disease and our utter inability to respond to it terrifies you about our future staring down climate change, it should, not just as a “fire drill” for climate change generally but as a test run for all the diseases that will be unleashed in the decades ahead by warming. The virus is a terrifying harbinger of future pandemics that will be brought about if climate change continues to so deeply destabilize the natural world: scrambling ecosystems, collapsing habitats, rewiring wildlife, and rewriting the rules that have governed all life on this planet for all of human history.

The Arctic also stores terrifying diseases from more recent times. In Alaska, researchers have discovered remnants of the 1918 flu that infected as many as 500 million, and killed as many as 50 million — about 3 percent of the world’s population, and more had died in the world war for which the pandemic served as a kind of gruesome capstone. Scientists suspect smallpox is trapped in Siberian ice, among many other diseases that have otherwise passed into human legend — an abridged history of devastating sickness, left out like egg salad in the Arctic sun. Many of these frozen organisms won’t actually survive the thaw; those that have been brought back to life have been reanimated typically under fastidious lab conditions. But in 2016, a boy was killed and 20 others infected by anthrax released when retreating permafrost exposed the frozen carcass of a reindeer killed by the bacteria at least 75 years earlier; more than 2,000 present-day reindeer died.

Bacteria are even trickier, and so we probably know about even fewer of them. Perhaps scariest are those that live within us, peacefully for now. More than 99 percent of even those bacteria inside human bodies are currently unknown to science, which means we are operating in near-total ignorance about the effects climate change might have on the bugs in, for instance, our guts — about how many of the bacteria modern humans have come to rely on, like unseen factory workers, for everything from digesting our food to modulating our anxiety, could be rewired, diminished, or entirely killed off by an additional few degrees of heat.

Overwhelmingly, of course, the viruses and bacteria making homes inside us are nonthreatening to humans — at present. Presumably, a difference of a degree or two in global temperature won’t dramatically change the behavior of the majority of them — probably the vast majority, even the overwhelming majority. But consider the case of the saiga — the adorable dwarflike antelope, native to Central Asia. In May 2015, nearly two-thirds of the global population died in the span of just days — every single saiga in an area the size of Florida, the land suddenly dotted with hundreds of thousands of saiga carcasses and not one lone survivor. An event like this is called a “megadeath,” this one so striking and cinematic that it gave rise, immediately, to a whole raft of conspiracy theories: aliens, radiation, dumped rocket fuel. But no toxins were found by researchers poking through the killing fields — in the animals themselves, in the soil, in the local plants. The culprit, it turned out, was a simple bacteria, Pasteurella multocida, which had lived inside the saiga’s tonsils, without threatening its host in any way, for many, many generations. Suddenly, it had proliferated, emigrated to the bloodstream, and from there to the animals’ liver, kidneys, and spleen. Why? “The places where the saigas died in May 2015 were extremely warm and humid,” Ed Yong wrote in The Atlantic. “In fact, humidity levels were the highest ever seen in the region since records began in 1948. The same pattern held for two earlier, and much smaller, die-offs from 1981 and 1988. When the temperature gets really hot, and the air gets really wet, saiga die. Climate is the trigger, Pasteurella is the bullet.”

4 Responses to “Climate Fueled Pandemics to Come”

  1. Roger Walker Says:

    Very interesting. Thank you, Peter.

    I knew about the anthrax and the smallpox. The Spanish flu was new to me, but it’s in the same vein. I also knew about the “unseen factory workers”, but I wasn’t aware that we know nothing about virtually all of them. What shakes me is that this is the first time anyone has encouraged me to think of our “passive” bacteria as a population which, like any other, is subject to the laws of evolution.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    This piece is originally adapted from a book that David Wallace-Wells wrote: THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: LIFE AFTER WARMING, Tim Duggan Books-Crown, 2019

    It is perhaps the best book of its kind anyone has written—-both because of the quality of his writing skills and the wealth of insights it contains.

    Our ignorance of the vast majority of life forms on Earth (and inside our own bodies) and how they “interlock” is going to provide plenty of opportunity for “surprises” in the future, although we have heard warnings from scientists about most of them for years and therefore should no be surprised. My favorite “pandemics” right now are the swarms of locusts in East Africa and the newest and most severe bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    Susceptibility of ferrets, cats, dogs, and other domesticated animals to SARS–coronavirus 2

    “These results indicate that SARS-CoV-2 can replicate efficiently in cats, with younger cats being more permissive and, perhaps more importantly, the virus can transmit between cats via the airborne route.”

    If you love your cats, keep them inside! and, not pet them when they get home from shopping etc, until after carefully washing hands/clothes. it’s possible cats are getting the virus from us.

    Reportedly in the US, a trusted source there told me some cats had to be put down cause the virus was making them so sick, they were suffering too terribly.

  4. redskylite Says:

    Thanks for sharing this interesting piece from David Wallace Wells – yet another reason to stop our rapid transformation of permafrost covered lands, north and south.

    We should be concerned, very concerned at our opening of Pandora’s box, exposing ancient bacteria and viruses.

    Do we really want to risk condemning future generations of masked humans to isolated post-truth cellular living, without experiencing enriching global travel. ? Do we really think our science will develop quickly enough to protect us from new diseases and self made pollution. ?



    As the planet warms and the ice thaws, scientists warn we could see the re-emergence of ancient pathogens currently unknown to science. These viruses, which have laid dormant and locked away in glaciers and permafrost—permanently frozen soil—for hundreds if not thousands of years, could “wake up,” researchers have said.

    Earlier this year, scientists analyzing two ice core samples from Guliya ice cap, Tibet, identified several of such viruses. One of the core samples dated back 520 years, while the other held sediments locked away 15,000 years ago. Four of the virus genera—the taxonomic rank between species and family—were already known, but 28 had never been seen before.

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