2020 wasn’t only a year of abnormality and confusion for humans. The innermost networks and societies of some of our deepest and darkest hidden ecosystems also experienced a record year. Busting out of their cryo-like chambers to come and play: things got steamy up in the Arctic this year.

Ice And A Smattering Of Fire

So 2020 was a whole year and then some. The world connected unabashedly with our opinions on tigers and chess to hide from our fear of an unknown virus. We also all learned a harsh lesson that no, lack of personal downtime is not the only reason holding us back from starting that novel, meditating daily, or getting a six-pack.

March and the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard for most countries, chasing families and anxious early dating companions alike into co-living situations. Rolling on through to mid-May, our weather systems all but pitched a fit. What was described as a pocket of “scorching air” blanketed across the northern reaches of Siberia, fanning itself out as far as it could bluster while engulfing the Arctic Ocean. As the northernmost member, the Arctic is typically known as the coldest of the world’s five major oceans. But 2020 and its menopausal weather had other plans: triggering an unparalleled heatwave in the Arctic.

Temperature readings smashed previous record highs by more than 10 degrees Celsius, causing what must have felt like an apocalyptic-scale chain of events: numerous wildfires erupted in Russia, igniting the sea ice melt, sending the 2020 melt season into overdrive, and capping it off with a cyclone for good measure. The intermingling of these events—coupled with the record low of 2020 sea ice cover—has left the Arctic Circle scorched, haggling with an additional handicap on the road to recovery in coming seasons. At this point, the question was bursting to be asked: could this frantic weather pattern and premature melt be linked to COVID-19? Could we really luck out by blaming another seemingly unexplainable phenomenon on the pandemic?

What Lies Beneath?

Climate change has been a hot topic for quite some time with many pleading it a hoax. It’s just so difficult to see this reasoning when events like this occur in places that are just not capable of absorbing the after effects. This scorching of the Arctic will take decades, if ever, to recover enough to build up the sea ice reach of recent years. The term global warming is arguably problematic because of its hint that climate change is only linked to increasing temperatures. This past 2020/2021 winter in the Arctic was one of the coldest on record, with polar vortexes experienced across the entirety of Canada over the course of just three days. These cold extremes are counter-intuitive when they are balanced out by heatwaves in otherwise freezing temperatures.

The North and South Pole are on a steady incline, heating at a rate two-to-four times faster than the rest of the planet. Drastic shifts in temperature extremes in the Arctic cause disruptions in the soil, particularly in the permafrost layer. Permafrost is the name given to the underlying soil layer that is permanently frozen in areas with an average annual temperature of below -5 °C; occurring across most of the Arctic and the entirety of Antarctica. Permafrost characterizes the Arctic in that all land that it underlies is stark and treeless, known as tundra. The problem with permafrost is that, by design, it does not melt. With drastic temperature fluctuations, this layer is beginning to thaw for the first time, inadvertently releasing all organisms, air pockets, fossils, bodies, and forgotten tools that have been encased in its icy cave for centuries. Our ancient history is waking up: did we just blindly witness an unleashing of forgotten bacteria with the potential to reignite diseases and haunt our every move?

What Does Any of This Mean?

More than a year has passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak as one originating from an animal. Even though the coronavirus is rather unique in its features for our current time, it is the third occurrence in the last 20 years when an epi- or pandemic event originates from a previously contained natural reservoir. It almost seems as if the virus was accidentally transferred to one unfortunate human who came a bit too close to the aforementioned natural—animal—habitat.

The tiny organisms that are now awakening from permafrost melt are microbes, many of them family members of ancient bacteria responsible for past pandemics that have long since died out. Their long slumber in sub-zero temperatures has maintained their response systems and prevented them from rotting. Extreme cold also prevents decay. When these microbes find themselves floating in free liquid rather than immovable ice, they wake up, coining the exceptional name “zombie bacteria”.

“Permanently frozen environments are basically natural reservoirs swimming with dormant microorganisms, including nasty human pathogens.”

Searching For ‘The One’

Water is an amazing thing. It is literally the founder of all life, with no exception for bacteria. When allowed roaming in a liquid form, these sleepy microbes thrive once again. Scientists have confirmed that some resurfaced bacteria have survived more than 40,000 years in their frozen bed. Basically, permanently frozen environments are natural reservoirs swimming with dormant life, including nasty human pathogens. Although not all of them dangerous, there is ongoing research on what exactly lies within the permafrost, with much speculation of perfectly preserved bodies in the layer being ideal hosts of extinct pandemics such as smallpox and the 1918 flu. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that these antibiotic-resistant human pathogens quite clearly pose a major threat to the current ecosystem both humans and our landscape inhabit.

The nature of these reemerging pathogenic microbes means that, once thawed, they must swiftly move into a living host. Along with worldwide warming temperatures, animals are moving further north, following the cold. And so are their hunters. Humans tend to follow the path led by their food, meaning we may soon find the Arctic population rising. With continuing permafrost melt, increased animal and human traffic in the region poses a subtle—yet deadly—threat.

If this all sounds a bit supernatural to you, how about this: it has already happened! 2016 saw more than 2,000 reindeer deaths in the Siberian tundra because of one resurfaced 75-year-old frozen reindeer carcass. The reindeer were infected with an anthrax variant, carrying the outbreak into remote villages, hospitalizing ~twenty village folk and killing a young boy.

Rising temperatures have clearly aided in the release of these assumed extinct nasties. Adding further fuel to this near-hell fire, human exploitation across the Arctic in the form of drilling and mining is accelerating the permafrost melt. What this means is that these potentially deadly microbes will have access to groundwater stores and may even navigate through glacial rivers, drastically increasing chance encounters with viable hosts.

So, What Now?

Some good news is that this is now a known threat, with research efforts seriously picking up over the last three decades. Scientists and a wide-range of technical experts from all over the globe are getting involved. The current pandemic has both divided and united thoughts and goals worldwide. Luckily, one of the united fronts is that the requirement for this sort of research is absolute.

How to Help

Whenever climate issues are brought up, the tendency is to eye roll through it and move on. The easiest thing for you to do if you are not an active researcher—or have pockets filled to the brim with investment cash—is to pay attention. Take action when local and higher policies are circulated for public comment. The pack is stronger together: we have the potential to preserve these Arctic environments and fragile underground layers if we act collectively. Organizations like Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature are spearheading policy- and conservation-level efforts in the Arctic. They often have petitions, volunteer, and other efforts for citizens to get involved in. Follow them to keep up to date; and just in case your pockets are feeling heavy, they would welcome donations to the cause.