Climate Changes Exposes Ancient, Giant Virus

Global warming is thawing Siberia's permafrost.

Global warming is thawing Siberia’s permafrost.

In his book Extreme Threats: Climate Change, author Don Nardo lays out a number of potentially calamitous consequences that might result from climate change. Heat waves, droughts, prolonged and devastating periods of freezing temperatures, increased numbers of natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes; the list goes on and on. But a new, particularly icky threat has recently come to life: gigantic, ancient viruses.

Earlier this month, scientists discovered a 30,000 year old giant virus buried some one hundred feet in Siberia’s frozen ground. Called Pithovirus sibericum, scientists believe the virus was sealed in the cold region’s permafrost (soil at or below a freezing temperature for more than two years). Indeed, many animals and organisms have been preserved for centuries in the frozen ground (some researchers have even tasted perfectly preserved wooly mammoth meat). But climate change and warming of the Siberian region have caused the layers of permafrost to decrease at steady rate, exposing many of these ancient lifeforms, including many viruses that been sealed away for thousands of years.

Pithovirus sibericum is one such virus, and it’s big. Literally. At just 1.5 micrometers, it may not sound large, but it’s about 1,000 times larger than an average virus (such as influenza); it also contains about 2,500 genes, while influenza has just thirteen. And research shows that the newly thawed virus has been revived and is growing and multiplying.

You can tell it's an old-timey virus from the push-broom mustache.

Yikes!

Fortunately, this particular virus strictly attacks single cell organisms, such as amoebas; it doesn’t attack more complex organisms like humans or animals. But, the researchers studying the giant virus worry that’s it just one of many frozen in the permafrost. The more that global warming thaws out the frozen ground, the more likely other ancient viruses will be found and potentially revived.

Admittedly, the chances of these viruses becoming a threat to humanity are low. But as one of the scientists working on the project says, “there’s always the first instance, right?”

Not too mention that earlier this year, scientists reconstructed the genetic code of a strain of the bubonic plague that wreaked havoc in the Roman Empire under Emperor Justinian; they were able to do so by extracting DNA from the teeth of two ancient bodies found by land developers in Germany. Scientists hope that studying the bacteria will give a greater understanding the plague’s evolutionary journey, providing insight into human history and the disease itself, which still affects some people today.

Still, ancient viruses and bacteria being extracted from frozen ground and preserved teeth bring to mind science fiction and apocalyptic scenarios. Of course, that kind of thing is just fiction . . .  anyway, now I’m off to move into a hermetically sealed biosphere and shower in Purell.

To learn more about the other dangers posed by climate change, as well as what we can do to slow it down, check out Extreme Threats: Climate Change by Don Nardo (ISBN# 978-1-59935119-3) from your local library or order it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. For more about the Bubonic plague, influenza, and other diseases, please see Morgan Reynolds’ Diseases in History series.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Published in: on March 12, 2014 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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An aerial view of damage from Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast

Did climate change play a role in Hurricane Sandy? New York governor Andrew Cuomo thinks so, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, former president Bill Clinton, and former vice president Al Gore also believe global warming may have played a role in bringing ashore Sandy, the largest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic.

 “There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement. That is a factual statement,” Cuomo said, at press briefing the day after the storm. “Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think, is denying reality.” He later added, “I think part of learning from this is realizing that climate change is a reality.”

Don Nardo, author of Extreme Threats: Climate Change, explains why hurricanes like Sandy are happening with more frequency:

 “The largest of all extreme rainfall events, of course, are hurricanes. These giant storms spawned in Earth’s oceans have occurred for millions of years and will continue in the future. The difference, researchers say, is that some future hurricanes will be much stronger and more dangerous than those in the past. That this will happen as large sectors of the planet’s surface grow warmer should not be too suprising. After all, hurricanes are essentially huge heat engines. The are born from and driven by warmth drawn from the oceans. The warmer the water such a storm encounters, the more energy it absorbs. That energy then manifests itself in stronger winds and the creation of bigger storm surges (walls of water pushed along by large ocean storms). As climate change steadily increases ocean temperatures, hurricanes will either become more frequent, stronger, or both.”

 More than 110 deaths have been blamed on Sandy, and early calculations put the damage caused by the hurricane, which affected at least twenty-four states, at $20 billion. And, for those caught in the storm, and left to rebuild their homes and lives, the emotional and psychological damage is surely incalculable.  To help you decide for yourself if climate change affects the increase in the strength of hurricanes check out Extreme Threats: Climate Change by Don Nardo (978-1-59935-119-3).

 Sharon F. Doorasamy

Managing Editor

Published in: on November 5, 2012 at 2:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“Forests are vital to life on earth.”-Al Stenstrup

This month, there was a summit in Durban, South Africa, to discuss the depletion of one of the world’s most valuable resources: forests. According to the (London) Telegraph, no agreements were made about how to deal with the problem; instead an agreement was made to keep discussing.

Al Stenstrup, author of Morgan Reynolds’s Diminishing Resources: Forests, wrote, “Our forests are diminishing in quantity and quality. Nearly one-third of the earth’s land is covered with forests–about half of what scientists estimate covered the earth 11,000 years ago. Today, it continues to rapidly decline, losing 36 million acres of natural forest each year.”

The Telegraph reported that in September of 2008, some of the world’s most influential governments donated gobs of money toward a global fund for diminishing CO2 emissions by stopping deforestation, leaving it in the care of the World Bank to use strictly to preserve the rainforests. The total came to 6.5 billion dollars.

“Incredibly,” the Telegraph reported, “the World Bank has spent less than 10 percent of the money it received.”

“This is incompetence on an appalling scale. During the last four years, deforestation has put more than 20 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.”

Stenstrup wrote:

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect and to global climate change. Trees take up CO2 from the atmosphere and use it to make the glucose or sugars that make up the tree. As long as the trees are alive and growing, they store this carbon. But when forests are cleared and the trees either burned or left to decay, this carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

And yet, the World Bank has not made a significant step with the money it has. The Telegraph reported, “The World Bank argues that it’s not easy to distribute money while ensuring that it is spent on the purpose for which it has been donated– especially…where central government … is corrupt and chronically inefficient. But there is a simple answer to that problem: don’t go through governments.”

Until the World Bank finds a way to circumvent those governments, which it is not apt to do any time soon, the world continues to constantly lose a natural resource and gain a whole lot of CO2.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information about forests, check out Diminishing Resources: Forests by Al Stenstrup (ISBN 9781599351162).

Published in: on December 19, 2011 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“When you study a volcano you get an idea about its behaviour in the same way you judge a person once you get to know them well.”- Professor Pall Einarsson, Iceland University Institute of Earth Sciences

Katla's 1918 eruption

Last week the BBC reported that yet another volcano in Iceland, Katla, is gnashing its teeth and threatening to blow its top. If  Katla erupts, experts say there could be global effects such as severe flooding and climate change.

BBC reported, “Mighty Katla has the potential to cause catastrophic flooding as it melts the frozen surface of its caldera and sends billions of gallons of water surging through Iceland’s east coast and into the Atlantic Ocean.”

According to Don Nardo, author of the Morgan Reynolds title Extreme Threats: Volcanoes, a caldera is a large crater of depression that forms during a volcanic eruption.

Katla has been moving and shaking lately, which is often a sign that an eruption could be on the horizon. Ford Cochran, National Geographic’s expert on Iceland, told BBC that in the last month alone there have been more than 500 tremors.

BBC reported that in 1783, Katla’s volcanic chain erupted so much in an eight month span that the ash and gases produced by the eruptions “killed one in five Icelanders and half of the country’s livestock.” Cochran said that the eruptions also changed the planet’s climate, causing a cooling that in turn caused famine in several places around the world.

Katla is certainly not the only volcanic threat to our planet. But the knowledge that just one volcanic chain such as Katla’s can wreak so much havoc is unsettling at best. Knowing the fickleness of volcanoes, as Don Nardo prophesied, “humanity faces a scary volcanic future.”

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information on volcanoes and climate change, check out the Morgan Reynolds series Extreme Threats.

Extreme Threats: Volcanoes by Don Nardo (ISBN 9781599351186)

Extreme Threats: Climate Change by Don Nardo (ISBN 9781599351193)

Published in: on December 7, 2011 at 11:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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“Heavy Rains Linked to Humans”- New York Times Headline

Talk of climate change was in the news this week as the Supreme Court made what has been called the most important decision about environmental law in years.

The Court ruled against a lawsuit brought by six states against five power companies as a way to force them to regulate their greenhouse gas emissions.

James Vicini of Reuters reported, “In a defeat for environmentalists, the Supreme Court agreed with the companies that regulating greenhouse gases should be left to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the clean air laws.”

The EPA has not yet made rules on gas emissions from power plants.

Why does it matter how much greenhouse gases are emitted? According to Don Nardo, author of Morgan Reynolds’s Extreme Threats: Climate Change, these gases are what is causing the Earth to warm, the polar ice caps to melt, and could eventually cause devastation among our species. And we are mostly to blame for their being so abundant.

“Scientists now recognize that an unnatural forcing–human activities–is the chief culprit [of recent climate change]. It started in a small way when people began to farm and build cities, but its effects were insignificant until the height of the Industrial Revolution, in the 1800s and 1900s. As factories multiplied… huge amounts of smoke and various gases poured from smokestacks into the atmosphere.”

Nardo explains that these gases are helping to heat up the Earth’s surface, which is good, until it becomes too hot.

“Sunlight passes through the structure’s glass ceiling and walls and heats up the air inside… the glass traps the warmth, keeping it from leaving the greenhouse. This causes the temperature inside to steadily increase….Besides water vapor, the chief greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone. On the positive side…this process keeps Earth’s surface warm and mild enough to support life. On the negative side… if the volume of greenhouse gases in the air increases too much, the planet could become uncomfortably warm.”

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In another Supreme Court ruling this week, the Court dismissed the largest sex discrimination suit in history.

The suit was brought against Wal-Mart on behalf of 1.5 million of its female employees.

According to the New York Times, “The suit claimed that Wal-Mart’s policies and practices had led to countless discriminatory decisions over pay and promotions.”

The Court was divided 5-4 in the ruling, with all three of the court’s women justices against the majority, ruling they would have sent the case back to the lower courts to be reviewed under a stricter standard of class certification.

 

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

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To learn more about Climate Change, check out Extreme Threats: Climate Change by Don Nardo. (ISBN 9781599351193)

For more information on the Supreme Court and its justices– including Sonia Sotomayor, one of the justices who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Wal-Mart case–see the Morgan Reynolds series Supreme Court Justices:

Sonia Sotomayor by Sandra Shichtman (ISBN 9781599351568)

Thurgood Marshall by Nancy Whitelaw (ISBN 9781599351579)

Earl Warren by Leslie Wolf Branscomb (ISBN 9781599351582)

John Marshall by Jim Corrigan (ISBN 9781599351599)

Published in: on June 23, 2011 at 12:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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