Microorganisms, are the most abundant species on our planet and include bacteria and viruses, yet they are seldom discussed in the context of climate change, despite the fact they play a critical role in the maintenance of global ecosystems. Although viruses are not living organisms they are sometimes classified as microorganisms. They are responsible for both consuming and generating greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen, playing an important role in biological cycles (nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon cycles).
These cycles are essential to numerous processes such as photosynthesis, the decomposition of organic materials providing nutrients for plants and the sequestration of carbon which ultimately sustains the marine environment. It is these vital processes for sustaining life that are disrupted by human activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation. Imbalances are created when greenhouse gases are released at a faster pace than microorganisms can use them.
The ice caps are melting and as a result sea levels are rising and vulnerable communities are at grave risk of being submerged. Higher sea levels are not the only potential threat. Scientists have discovered another potential hazard. The aptly named Methuselah microorganisms are being released as the Arctic permafrost melts and may have potential to initiate future pandemics.
The cumulative effect of changes in the microbial ecosystem has an impact on the resilience of other microorganisms, plant, animal and other life forms including humans and their ability to respond and adapt to climate change. Despite the fact that microorganisms are major components in the regulation of climate change, to date they have not been an integral part of climate studies or considered in developing climate policy.
Albeit ignored, climate resilience is a vital component of Covid recovery policy
Since microorganisms influence in both a positive and a negative way and far outnumber other species, it is time their importance to the survival of the planet is recognised. They constitute the life support system on which every living thing is dependent for survival and the ability to dismantle that same life support system when the opportunity arises.
As far back as 1992 and again in 2017The Alliance of World Scientists and the Scientist’ Warning Movement issued two warnings, the second imploring policy developers to shift their focus away from economic growth to sustainability policy aimed at conserving the environment.
Covid recovery policies are devoid of references to microorganisms and yet building climate resilience is a vital component of any recovery policy! Most recovery policies are based on economic recovery, with the exception of the EU Covid recovery plan, which does offer more than just a passing reference to climate change. The Scottish government recovery plan does acknowledge the part that the COVID vaccination programme played in building a platform to support economic and social recovery, but the word ‘climate’ appears only once on their Covid recovery strategy webpage.
One of the biggest challenges is tackling diseases in low-income countries
The ongoing race against time to control transmission and prevention of infectious diseases has been accelerated with climate change. Increasing global temperatures, extreme weather events, increases in disease vectors such as mosquitoes, populations being displaced, the rise of super resistant microorganisms, antibiotic resistance all add to the disease burden we face.
Assuming the present geopolitical policies on greenhouse gas emissions continues, global warming will exceed 1.5C in the 2020s’ and 2C before 2050. Politicians setting targets is a pointless exercise if polices designed to achieve them are inadequate. Aided and abetted by current governments and those with vested financial interests, the current preferred route for industry of ‘greenwashing’ will fall far short of policies that are needed to avert a climate catastrophe.
Microorganisms will fill the environmental niches left by decades of climate abuse. They are resilient and adapt quickly to environmental changes. The COVID pandemic was a sneak preview of what is to unfold if climate change continues unabated and humans slow to respond.
One of the biggest challenges is tackling diseases in low-income countries, predominantly those in the Global South. When the Global North is impacted, the commitment to research infectious disease, put prevention strategies in place and examine their emergence and spread, suddenly becomes more urgent.
Changing the path well travelled by lower income countries, which are more exposed to infectious disease and are impacted by climate changes, is crucial to the survival of everyone globally.
Scientists don’t give up readily. They are continually up against it and trying to keep ahead of the curve. Their efforts were hampered by the postponement or abandonment of intervention programmes on tropical disease during the COVID pandemic but thankfully some programmes are being reinstated. A ten-fold increase in cases of Dengue from 500,000 to 5.2million from 2000 to 2019 was reported by the WHO.
In the year 2023 cases reached 5 million, an historic high. The WHO have cautioned that these figures are underestimated, citing inadequate surveillance and reporting in many countries. Aside from other factors such as population displacement, the WHO stated climate change factors, an increase in temperature and humidity, were implicated in the increased occurrence of dengue and other tropical diseases, and in countries previously unaffected.
Scientists remain committed in spite of the challenges thrown up by climate change. New and innovative approaches in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases are appearing more frequently, due in part to the acceleration in vaccines research at the start of the COVID pandemic. Besides vaccines, other interventions in eradicating the sources of disease are also being developed and the positive aspects of microorganisms are being harnessed.
Melting Arctic ice releases Methuselah microorganisms and possible pandemics
The ice caps are melting, as a result sea levels are rising and vulnerable communities are at grave risk of being submerged. Higher sea levels are not the only potential threat. Scientists have discovered another potential hazard. The aptly named Methuselah microorganisms are being released as the Arctic permafrost melts and may have potential to initiate future pandemics. These ancient viruses, released from the permafrost due to increases in the planet’s temperature, could unleash a major disease outbreak.
Of 13 revived permafrost viruses scientists found that several could replicate in single celled organisms (amoeba). Although these do not present a threat, the researchers found trace evidence of numerous other species of microorganisms including poxviruses and herpesviruses related to pathogens which do cause disease in humans.
There have been disease outbreaks in the past which have come from permafrost
The journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science published research which highlighted the importance of vaccination against anthrax and the climatic and epidemiological elements that may have caused a massive outbreak of anthrax in Siberian reindeer in 2016.
A reindeer vaccination programme had been cancelled and 2,350 out of the susceptible population of 2,650 died, a fatality rate of 88.67%! Humans were affected also with 90 local people taken ill, 53 of whom were children.
In the summer of that year an abnormally high ambient temperature occurred which melted the permafrost.
Not only are vaccination programmes of extreme importance in maintaining human health outcomes, as I have outlined in a previous article, but they are also a necessity in ensuring the health of other species. Total vaccination of all susceptible reindeer herds was reinstated.
The biggest risk with any novel viruses and other strains found in permafrost melt, is that they may have the capability to spread rapidly, initiating future pandemics in populations which do not have natural immunity. Modern vaccines could offer some protection against such novel viruses but these need to be studied as and when the virus infects people. This means that scientists have to stay ahead of the curve if suitable vaccines and technologies are to be developed to ensure sufficient vaccine supply.
As climate change alters the dynamics in the community structure of microorganisms, there is a need for us to accommodate these changes in our own community structures; hence the urgent requirement to adapt and evolve in response to our own changing circumstances. Climate change policies which consider microorganisms and the role they play in carbon reduction, land use, reducing environmental degradation and lowering our exposure to infectious disease, are key to our survival.
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