There is a 2020 film out of Greenland called ‘Utuqaq’ which translates to ‘ice that lasts year after year’, in other words permanent ice. Made by Iva Radivojevic, the film is about the Arctic ice which is now melting because of global warming.

And nations are scrambling to corner the ‘real estate’ that is getting uncovered as hundreds of meters of thick ice melts away, thanks to the destruction that we have wrought upon this planet. The vanquished Arctic is being turned into a commercial hub and greedy prospectors are already scrounging for minerals and resources to fill the never ending demands of the voracious consumer.

As all this happens, scientists go about their business, drilling meters deep for ice samples to study what happened on Earth thousands, maybe millions of years ago. As the sutradhar of the film says, the ice has a long memory and in it are locked the secrets of what the air contained a million years ago.

But there is so much more that this Utuqaq ice contains. It carries embedded life in its many layers, a chronicle of what the earth was like thousands and millions of years ago. Which animals roamed the land, which birds flew in its skies and which worms and insects went about their business in these parts.

It has the record of which plants flourished in these regions and it also has locked in its sheets of permafrost, the previously known and as yet unknown bugs that inhabited the ecosystems of the then Earth. Frozen in Utuqaq are also the bacteria and viruses that this generation of Homo sapiens has perhaps never encountered.

The world was turned on its head by the pandemic unleashed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, better known as the Coronavirus. We are still not free of the Coronavirus and if experts are to be believed, that serendipitous state is unlikely to return.

Waiting in the wings are the bugs that were scrubbed out years ago, like smallpox and the as yet encountered viruses and bacteria, that will emerge from the destruction of once pristine ecosystems.

As global temperatures continued to rise, scientists predicted that with the thawing of the permafrost, ancient infectious agents trapped in the ice for millennia, could be released. Humans would encounter these new agents , bacteria, viruses, even others for the first time and thus have no immunity against them. Already, such events are being reported.

In a remote area of Siberia not so long ago, when the permafrost thawed, it released the frozen spores of the Anthrax bacterium into nearby water and soil and then into the food supply. This resulted in the death of thousands of reindeer and of one boy. Hundreds were hospitalised.

Russian scientists studying the permafrost had predicted in 2011 when the situation with global warming began to look dire, that with permafrost melting, “the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”

In 2014 and 2015 scientists discovered two still infectious viruses from a chunk of 30,000-year-old Siberian permafrost. Although these viruses only infected amoeba, they are a harbinger of what could await us.

Remember that the Coronavirus first infected only bats and then somehow found its way to humans. Such discoveries are indications that other viruses like the smallpox virus, now eradicated due to extensive vaccinations, could emerge once again from thawing permafrost, as can the virus causing the Spanish flu, the earlier pandemic that took some 50 million lives worldwide.

There is in addition, informed speculation that human viruses from very early times are likely to be captured in the sheets of the Utuqaq ice. It is possible that disease-causing agents, microorganisms like bacteria and viruses, fungi and protozoa that coexisted with the early human populations that populated the Arctic are frozen in its soil and ice.

As the Arctic ice melts and the land is exposed, these infectious agents would come into contact with humans. There are several indications that ancient humans like Neanderthals and Denisovans were plagued by bacterial and viral diseases like smallpox.

There were other disease-causing bugs which might have disappeared but remain frozen in the ancient soil. As temperatures rise -these bugs could come to active life and multiply, creating a dangerous source of diseases for the current human population.

This here is just one more reminder that pathogens never really go away, they just lurk around the corner waiting for a favourable situation to emerge so that they can jump back in. As the climate turbulence hurtles on, creating un-programmed and unpredictable situations, we can worry about potentially catastrophic scenarios unfolding.

Dr. SUMAN SAHAI is a scientist trained in genetics and chairperson of the Gene Campaign. Views expressed are the writer’s own.