The coronavirus has taken more than 1.6 million lives worldwide. We hope that the pandemic will not last long with the development of vaccines, but it will not be our last pandemic. We are in the age of pandemics.
Scientists have discovered 28 never-before-seen viruses from the Tibetan plateau of China. The glaciers held the viruses for the past 15,000 years.
For millions of years, viruses have been on earth. We know about only a small fraction of viruses. It is estimated that there are 10 nonillion (10 to the 31 power) viruses that exist on earth. Most of the time, we manage to live in a virus-filled world, but many viruses remain trapped in permafrost, glaciers and oceans for thousands to millions of years, capable of impacting us badly.
Meltwater from glaciers could carry pathogens along waterways, potentially exposing humans to new viruses. Microorganisms can survive in frozen space for a very long time. It looks even scarier when we see that many of the world’s population lives on the river basins that originates from Himalayan glaciers.
Nearly half of India’s population is dependent on the rivers, having their origin in the Himalayas. These rivers carry sediments, sand and glacial water to the inhabited land, exposing humans to new viruses. China is not an exception. A large portion of China’s population is dependent on the rivers Yangtze, which originates in glacial meltwaters of Tanggula mountains in the Tibet region, and Hwang He, which originates from Bayan Har mountains.
As the planet warms, they could ferry harmful pathogens to inhabited lands.
Not only are glaciers melting, but permafrost is also thawing at a rapid rate. Permafrost is the layer that is usually bound together by ice, consists of soil, gravel and sand. It remains at or below 0°C. As the planet warms up, the permafrost layer thaws, which means that the ice inside the permafrost melts, leaving water and soil behind. Carbon Dioxide, methane and other gases are trapped in the permafrost layer and as the earth warms up the gases are released into the atmosphere, making it even warmer.
It is estimated that permafrost contains three times the carbon that has been released since the start of industrialisation and twice as much carbon than what’s currently found in the atmosphere. When this layer melts, the temperature rise will melt all the glaciers. All the viruses which have been trapped in the glaciers will start searching for new hosts.
Most of the time, diseases have entered into people from animals, especially wild animals. Every year, two viruses spillover from animals to humans. We have seen that most of the new viruses have their origin in tropical areas lying on the equator. The edges of tropical forests tend to be hotbeds for virus transmissions.
Global warming has increased the temperature in forests as a result of which new diseases emerge every year. As the planet warms up, all the animals are headed to the poles to get some relief from the heat. It results in unusual contact between animals, which allows pathogens to get into new hosts.
With the increase in temperature, the pattern of disease is changing. Zoonotic diseases, carried by insects like mosquitoes, are moving into new places and expanding their impact.
We have failed to live in harmony with nature. We have escalated our demands upon the environment. Today, we are losing living species at an unknown rate. Mother Earth is warming and animals are losing their habitat. With the increase in temperature, habitat loss, irregular rainfall, droughts and fewer food sources, animals are approaching new habitats where people live, leading to the spread of diseases.
To prevent future pandemics, we need to manage to cap global warming at under 2°C. We must drastically decrease greenhouse gas emissions. The best way to prevent us from future pandemics is to stop deforestation, which is the root cause of global warming. It could also stop animal migration. The diseases occur by animals that move into new habitats as theirs has been destroyed because of deforestation.
Recently, the Ebola epidemic occurred in Africa. Bats carried the virus because their usual place of living got destroyed to grow palm oil trees.
Carbon dioxide, the predominant heat-trapping greenhouse gas, lingers in the atmosphere for many years. We have already released enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and even if we stop emitting them today, we can’t stop global warming for several decades. But it doesn’t mean that we may continue emitting greenhouse gases. It makes the situation even worse and will end up making the earth a fireball.
Promoting electricity generation from low-carbon energy sources such as solar and wind energy can help decrease harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxides.
There is no certainty which diseases could occur, in which locations and when. From the coronavirus pandemic, we may learn that anything can happen anytime and we must be prepared for the unexpected.