Can Climate Change Cause a Pandemic?

by blackspanielgallery

The Earth maintains a delicate balance, and if there is a change in one aspect there can easily be unforeseen consequences, such as climate change triggering a pandemic.

Often changes in one area cause changes in another, so it is natural to ask whether climate change can bring about the spread of disease. If so, what mechanism might be the culprit? Can we find a scenario where climate change is a cause or major contributor, and a resulting consequence can be attributed to it? Coincidental occurrences of two concurrent events is not what is being asked, rather can we have a direct link?

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A New Concern

A few months ago I was watching television, and the setting was in Alaska.  The activities of the show involved thawing permafrost and digging down to bedrock in pursuit of gold.  On the episode that gave me pause for concern a mammoth tusk was uncovered. 


The problem I am concerned with is whether bacteria are cryogenically preserved in the permafrost where organic material was flash frozen.  In addition, a virus remaining dormant in frozen material is another possibility.  These could easily have been bacteria and viruses associated with long eradicated diseases, but lying in suspended animation in the permafrost.  When thawed, bacteria and viruses that predate human life could easily become viable, and the human race could have no natural immunization to prevent disease from spreading.  This would be just as dangerous as having bacteria and viruses come from outer space, alien to us as a species.


No, I know of no evidence of an immediate danger, but it is a plausible scenario.  And global warming can be the trigger to release whatever lies dormant in the permafrost, nature’s freezer.  So, we must be vigilant to the possibility.


I did run this problem by two biology professors at the college since this is outside my fields of physics and mathematics, and they agreed it is possible to have frozen organic material with viable bacteria and viruses.

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The Bubonic Plague

Was There a Climate Connection?

Much has been studied about the bubonic plague outbreaks that devastated Europe in past centuries.  The finger always points to rats as carriers of infected fleas.  And the source has been attributed to the rats arrival on ships involved with trade.  This seems to have little to do with climate change on the surface, but digging deeper reveals the connection.


The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is used by an online article from CBS to correlate rat populations in Asia with climate, and consequently bubonic plague outbreaks that found their way to Europe.  Also, the occurrences of the bubonic plague in Europe occurred during the Little Ice Age, when famine and extreme temperatures rendered the population vulnerable to disease. 


A different mechanism could be famine reduced crops, and the food chain could be disrupted, with predators coming back too slowly to control carriers of a disease.  My students often find recovery of owls and snakes occurred too slowly to control the rats, and while I cannot find a source to confirm this happened, I is a plausible scenario.  Plausibility is our purpose here.


So, it is quite possible climate has already caused pandemics.  Indeed, it is likely.


Updated: 09/29/2017, blackspanielgallery
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blackspanielgallery on 03/20/2016

Thanks, Frank. In America our history books often tell of cremation of plague victims, but even if true many had to be buried, since each area dealt with the problem separately. It is good to hear from someone closer to London. Nice input. And that is not even cryogenic preservation. This was an idea that came to me watching a television show where I was afraid there was poor judgement in handling preserved organic matter from the tundra.

frankbeswick on 03/20/2016

The scenario in which bacteria remain preserved is all too realistic and well-grounded. For example, it is because of the fear of bacterial survival from the Plague that no one in London is allowed to excavate Black Heath, which is preserved as lovely green space, for below it is a Plague burial ground, where something nasty might be lurking.

blackspanielgallery on 03/20/2016

Thanks for the comment.

sheilamarie on 03/20/2016

We are walking on a razor's edge right now. What disasters that will come with a changing climate are unknown but certainly there will be consequences we have yet to consider.

blackspanielgallery on 03/11/2016

This is a thought that crossed my mind, and I was wondering how many consequences of altering climate there might be. Err on the side of caution.

MBC on 03/11/2016

Very interesting speculations.

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