A woman in Greenland tends a potato crop. The country has seen a dramatic shrinkage in ice recently. (Photo: Getty)
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Who’s afraid of the big, bad virus? Perils from beneath the Arctic ice

The melting of Arctic permafrost is reawakening millennia-buried pathogens. But it’s the release of methane we should be more worried about.

This month, we learned that the melting of permafrost in Arctic regions is giving a new lease of life to hitherto unknown viruses. These have been buried in the ice for thousands of years but rising global temperatures are now thawing some of them out. As the melting continues, who knows what dangerous pathogens might be released?

The response from virologists was generally along the lines of: “Don’t panic.” That’s not quite the right reaction. There is something to worry about here.

The big discovery was the pithovirus, now confirmed as the world’s largest virus. It was last active 30,000 years ago and the French team that reactivated it managed to get the virus to infect amoebae. The researchers claim to have ruled out the possibility of human beings becoming infected with pithovirus but there are reasons to be sceptical.

A few years ago, the same French biologists said they were confident that a previous virus discovery, the mimivirus, could not infect people. But it also infected amoebae – and blood samples taken from one of their lab technicians, who had come down with mild pneumonia, were found to contain mimivirus antibodies. In other words, it seems they were wrong. Just because the researchers haven’t managed to infect human cells with the new virus, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

However, that’s not what we should be worried about. Neither should we be too concerned that the receding permafrost could bring us into contact with other potentially dangerous viruses. It is possible that the tundra contains deep-frozen organisms that could be harmful to people; plans to drill for oil and gas in those regions could create new threats. Yet you could say the same of exploring the oceans. Every litre of seawater contains roughly ten billion microbes and 100 billion viruses. Most are not in our catalogues.

It is even possible that this is a good thing. We are learning how to harness the peculiar abilities of viruses to deliver gene therapy and even fight cancer. Something called a reovirus, for instance, is being tested against tumours; it attacks cancerous cells but leaves normal cells untouched.

Other viruses are proving effective at smuggling healthy human DNA into diseased organs, enabling us to cure some cases of partial blindness, for example. Having a new set of viruses to play with might prove useful.

What we should be concerned about is far more straightforward. The threat from a newly released virus is nothing compared to the threat from newly released molecules of methane. Atmospheric methane accelerates warming about 25 times faster than carbon dioxide. There is roughly 400 billion tonnes of methane trapped in permafrost. As global temperatures rise, the ground melts and the gas is released.

There have been very few studies into the risks posed by melting permafrost (pdf). Last summer, however, a team of economists and polar science researchers warned that it is an “economic time bomb”. If there is a sudden release of methane – and no one knows if it will be a slow leak or an enormous belch – the effects will include flooding, extreme weather events and, consequently, a huge downturn in agricultural production. Researchers estimate that the economic impact of the tundra melting could be as much as $60trn.

Resurrected monster viruses make great headlines but the creep of unmitigated climate change is far more likely to do the serious damage.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At The Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Amazon's unlikely role in the Calais relief efforts

Campaigners are using Amazon's wishlist feature - more commonly used for weddings and birthdays - to rally supplies for the thousands camped at Calais. 

Today and yesterday, relief efforts have sprung up across the web and IRL following the publication of shocking photos of a drowned refugee child. People are collecting second hand clothes and food, telling David Cameron to offer refuge, and generally funneling support and supplies to the thousands in Calais and across Europe who have been forced from their homes by conflict in Syria and elsewhere. 

One campaign, however, stuck out in its use of technology to crowdsource supplies for the Calais camp. An Amazon wishlist page - more familiar as a way to circulate birthday lists or extravagant wedding registries - has been set up as part of the  #KentforCalais and #HelpCalais campaigns, and is collecting donations of clothes, food, toiletries, tents and sleeping supplies. 

Judging by the Twitter feed of writer and presenter Dawn O'Porter, one of the list's organisers, shoppers have come thick and fast. Earlier today, another user tweeted that there were only six items left on the list - because items had sold out, or the requested number had already been purchased - and O'Porter tweeted shortly after that another list had been made. Items ordered through the list will be delivered to organisers and than transported to Calais in a truck on 17 September. 

This, of course, is only one campaign among many, but the repurposing of an Amazon feature designed to satiate first world materialism as a method of crisis relief seems to symbolise the spirit of the efforts as a whole. Elsewhere, Change.org petitions, clothes drives organised via Facebook, and Twitter momentum (which, in this case, seems to stretch beyond the standard media echo chamber) have allowed internet users to pool their anger, funds and second-hand clothes in the space of 24 hours. It's worth noting that Amazon will profit from any purchases made through the wishlist, but that doesn't totally undermine its usefulness as a way to quickly and easily donate supplies. 

Last year, I spoke to US writer and urbanist Adam Greenfield, who was involved New York's Occupy Sandy movement (which offered relief after after hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2011) and he emphasised the centrality of technology to the relief effort in New York:

Occupy Sandy relied completely on a Googledocs spreadsheet and an Amazon wishlist.  There was a social desire that catalysed uses of technology through it and around it. And if that technology didn't exist it might not have worked the way it did. 

So it's worth remembering, even as Amazon suffers what may be the worst PR disaster in its history and Silicon Valley's working culture is revealed to be even worse than we thought, that technology, in the right hands, can help us make the world a better place. 

You can buy items on the Amazon wishlist here or see our list of other ways to help here

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.