NOTE TO TEACHERS: This article is featured in a free, one-hour lesson plan that teaches students how to fact-check claims about “zombie” viruses thawing in the Siberian permafrost. The lesson is available through PBS LearningMedia, and includes a lesson summary and a handout, among other resources.
The internet has been buzzing about a consequence of climate change that, while isn’t as visible as stranded polar bears and wildfires, is just as alarming. Zombie viruses. Bacteria and viruses — preserved for centuries in glaciers — coming back to life as the Arctic’s permafrost starts to thaw.
This TikTok from @singoesgreen about the climate crisis went viral, hitting 1.4 million likes and 6.3 million views. In the video, the creator states that melting ice caps could expose humans to ancient viruses still able to infect their targets.
With the fear and anxiety triggered by COVID-19, imagining a whole Pandora’s box of diseases sounds like something out of a horror film. But will the continued melting of ice caps due to human-caused climate change really release long-dormant bacteria and viruses that’ll infect us all? Here’s how we fact-checked it.
Question how the post makes you feel
The best, most convincing misinformation out there plays on our emotions — when we feel things like shock or outrage, that could be a sign that what you’re reading is missing some important context. On the other hand, you also want to fact-check things that you agree with that are making you emotional. When we see things that fall in line with our morals or make us feel validated, we can forget to fact-check.
What are other sources saying?
According to an article from Smithsonian Magazine, experts found that man-made climate change is causing glaciers around the world to shrink and release microbes and viruses that have been trapped for up to hundreds of thousands of years. According to the article, in 2015, scientists from the U.S. and China drilled into a glacier and found evidence of ancient viruses. And 28 of these viruses were new to science.
According to an article from National Geographic, in 2014, another study found that a 30,000 year old “giant virus” from permafrost was still able to infect its target. However, according to a research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this giant virus is only able to attack amoebas, which are single-celled organisms. Not humans.
Try a keyword search
The TikTok named two specific diseases that are cause for concern: anthrax and the smallpox virus. Using those terms to refine our keyword search brought up this article from NPR. NPR reported that back in 2016, melting permafrost in northern Siberia thawed a decades-old deer carcass that was infected with anthrax. This is thought to have caused an outbreak that hospitalized 96 people and killed 2,000 reindeer. The article also states that there’s probably smallpox and the bubonic plague also buried in Siberia.
However, Michael Zimmerman, a paleopathologist at the University of Pennsylvania, also told NPR that “we’re dealing with organisms that have been frozen for hundreds of years, so I don’t think they would come back to life.” And then added that a resurgence of viruses like smallpox would be “extremely unlikely.”
Mostly Legit. It’s true that scientists have found that within melting permafrost there are ancient viruses and bacteria, some previously unknown to science. However, most of these viruses can only infect amoebas. And while there might be some frozen viruses preserved in permafrost out there that could once infect humans, experts agree that it’s very unlikely for those types of viruses to come back to life. We’ll give this TikTok a MOSTLY LEGIT rating. The TikTok is accurate, but experts say we don’t need to panic just yet.