Scientists have issued a warning about what they call “time-traveling invaders” and have called for swift solutions to curb the spread of these invaders, as failure to do so could pose a significant danger to humanity. But who exactly are these invaders, and what has caused their resurgence?
When scientists refer to “time-traveling invaders,” they are talking about a group of ancient viruses lying dormant in the ice, poised to re-emerge and potentially infect humans as the permafrost thaws—a scenario exacerbated by climate change.
According to a British study, permafrost covers nearly half of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. It’s a solid layer of frozen ground, composed of sand and rock, found in high-latitude and high-altitude regions like Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, the Tibetan Plateau, northern Canada, and more.
What makes this hypothesis alarming is that these ancient viruses, nicknamed “time-traveling invaders” by experts, are trapped within the permafrost. This isn’t the first time that dormant viruses have garnered attention. In 2012, scientists confirmed genetic signatures of the smallpox virus in 300-year-old mummy remains extracted from Siberia.
Today, with the accelerating rates of glacier retreat and permafrost thawing worldwide, these microorganisms and viruses stand a chance of resurfacing and potentially affecting human life.
Dr. Abdul Karim Aqziq, an epidemiologist and research associate at King’s College London, shared his insights with Sky News Arabia, stating, “The emergence of new viruses or the revival of ancient viruses is a plausible and highly possible scenario.”
He went on to explain the challenge with viruses: they are neither truly alive nor entirely lifeless. Viruses consist of small pieces of genetic material enclosed in a protein coat, making them resilient and resistant to destruction. This resilience means they can remain viable for extraordinarily long periods, potentially spanning thousands of years.
As an example, a study published in 2014 revealed that soil samples from the frozen ground in Siberia contained 13 different types of viruses believed to have existed more than 48,000 years ago.
The problem lies in the fact that if these viruses infiltrate and infect living organisms, they could quickly regain activity, posing a significant health risk.
The resurgence of such ancient viruses or the emergence of new ones could potentially lead to outbreaks and pandemics, making it vital to study and prepare for these scenarios as we confront the impacts of climate change and global warming.