Zombie Viruses May Emerge from Permafrost


In the summer of 2016, a chilling scenario emerged from the depths of Siberia, as a terrifying disease, anthrax, reared its head after nearly a century of dormancy.

Melting permafrost in Siberia had awakened dormant bacterial spores, affecting thousands of reindeer and exposing human lives. The media frenzy dubbed these events as “zombie” viruses making a comeback. But beneath the sensationalism, the thawing permafrost conceals a far graver concern: carbon.


Permafrost is defined as ground that has remained below freezing for at least two years, covering an area larger than the United States. Some portions of permafrost have been frozen for hundreds of thousands of years. Within the top ten feet of this frozen ground lies approximately one trillion tons of carbon, double the amount currently in Earth’s atmosphere. Should even 1% of this carbon be released due to warming, it would be equivalent to a year’s worth of human-caused emissions.

For years, scientists believed the Arctic acted as a carbon sink, storing more carbon in vegetation than it emitted. However, research from 2019 flipped this equation, revealing that more carbon was being released than absorbed by plants. As global temperatures continue to rise, the carbon stored in permafrost becomes an increasingly pressing issue.



Permafrost is often described as a carbon “bomb,” but it is more likely a gradual release of carbon into the atmosphere, year by year. The hidden danger lies in a feedback loop: warming temperatures lead to permafrost melting, releasing carbon, which, in turn, intensifies climate change, further warming the Arctic.

Beyond global climate impacts, there are more immediate, local consequences of melting permafrost. As the ground softens and disintegrates, it jeopardizes infrastructure, leading to landslides, damaged buildings, and collapsing roads.

Indigenous communities, who have resided in the Arctic for thousands of years, are particularly vulnerable to these changes, as their homes and livelihoods face an uncertain future.

In conclusion, while the media’s fascination with “zombie” viruses captures attention, the true threat of warming permafrost lies in its potential to disrupt the delicate balance of our planet’s carbon cycle.

The release of ancient carbon stores into the atmosphere threatens to compound the issue of global warming, with serious consequences for both the Arctic region and the world. It is imperative that we prioritize understanding and addressing the permafrost’s carbon threat, alongside other climate change challenges, as the urgency to act on climate change has never been greater.



Ammara Ahmed

Ammara Ahmed

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