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Rising Temperatures, Rising Health Risks

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we examine climate change and the rise of disease, viruses, and antibiotic resistance.
Abigail Bassett
Jan 16, 2024 14 min read
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There's no question that 2023 was the hottest year on record, according to recent data from NASA, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and Copernicus, Europe’s climate change group.

As temperatures rise around the world, long-frozen ice caps melt. Once livable zones become unbearable for human, animal, and plant life. Governments and researchers around the world are deeply concerned about how these changes could influence the rise of long-ago "dead" viruses, diseases, and bacteria, and their resulting resistance to modern-day antibiotics.

The issue is complex, but the resounding drumbeat from researchers worldwide indicates that climate change could profoundly impact human, animal, and plant health in ways that modern medicine may not be currently equipped to handle.

The World Has Probably Already Breached the 1.5℃ Global Warming Limit as of 2023

According to data from Copernicus, the global temperature hit a record high in 2023, with more than half the days of the year hovering above the 1.5℃ (2.7 ℉) warming limit.

That 1.5℃ is the agreed-upon Paris Agreement, which includes the long-term goal of keeping warming “well below” 2℃ and aiming to limit it to 1.5℃ as the global benchmark.

A summary of the Copernicus report by ABC News states that the globe saw the hottest period in the last 100,000 years, with peaks in the Northern Hemisphere in March of 2023 and again from July through December. Two days in November peaked above the 2.0℃ threshold, as well. According to the story, the average temperature reached record highs or came close to record highs on every continent except Australia.

Climate Change and Rising Heat Causes Permafrost and Ice Caps To Melt

According to the EPA, permafrost is rock or soil with ice, frozen for two or more years. It usually lies beneath "active" soil and is found in Arctic regions. Scientists have been measuring and taking core samples of permafrost around the world to keep an eye on global warming and climate change. Nearly a quarter of the Earth's land surface is covered in permafrost, according to Overall, permafrost temperatures have increased by 0.6℉ each decade, the EPA says, noting that their data tracks with data from other sites around the world. Researchers estimate that by 2011, permafrost will be gone from the globe.

Similarly, the North and South Pole ice caps are melting increasingly quickly. According to a December 2023 report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, “As of December 15, the Antarctic Ice Sheet had above average melt in the Amery and Dronning Maud Land Ice Shelf regions, with significant melting on the Antarctic Peninsula. Greenland’s 2023 melt season was the third highest on record with persistent high melt extents in late June through mid-July, with a late August melt spike.” The large melts affect deep ocean currents, frequently referred to as the Ocean’s Conveyor belt or AMOC (Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation), which impacts storm systems, weather, drought, human and animal migrations, crops, and more.

“Zombie” Viruses, Bacteria, and Diseases are Re-Awakening as the Globe Warms

There is plenty of scientific research (as well as speculation) about what might happen to our world if we consistently surpass that 1.5℃ threshold. Melted ice would lead to uninhabitable lowlands near the ocean, rivers, and lakes; most coral reefs would die off, and mega-storms would become the norm, as would fires and drought. There's no question that a rapid increase in global temperature could set off a tremendous number of problems for human populations, including releasing a number of previously unknown and ancient bacteria, viruses, and diseases back into the world.

Anthrax, for example, was released back into the world after being dormant for 70 years when the permafrost thaw accelerated, and spores became active after a warm summer, according to this 2021 study. More recently, a team of scientists "revived" a 48,500-year-old virus they found in melting permafrost. Scientists have found evidence of old viruses, like the 1918 flu, in people who died in the 90s. As CNN notes, “In 2012, scientists confirmed the 300-year-old mummified remains of a woman buried in Siberia contained the genetic signatures of the virus that causes smallpox,” a disease that has been eradicated since the 1980s.

Researchers note that our immune systems are honed by the environment in which we live. For reference, consider the reduction in the number of deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19 as people get vaccinated and immunity grows. This is known as “herd immunity.” When an ancient bacteria, disease, or virus wakes up, there’s no real telling how it will affect human and animal populations.

Antibiotic Resistance is a Growing Threat as the Climate Warms

Because many of these bugs have long been dormant, traditional medicine, including antibiotics, may not be enough to cure infections. A recent study published in the journal Nature notes that researchers are starting to look at antibiotic resistance and how climate change could be an exacerbating factor.

As weather patterns, including heat, drought, and rainfall, change around the globe, more people are exposed to conditions that increase bacterial growth. Not all bacteria are antibiotic resistant, but over the years, as a result of overuse and over-prescription, as well as climate change, there's been an increase in the number of deadly bacteria resistant to antibiotic treatment, according to the World Health Organization.

The WHO notes that antibiotic resistance (referred to as antimicrobial resistance and includes medicines such as antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, and antiparasitics), or AMR, is one of the "top global public health and development risks." The WHO report also notes that “AMR was directly responsible for 1.27 million global deaths in 2019 and contributed to 4.95 million deaths.”

AMR not only affects humans. It impacts plants and animals, too, which is essential since we rely on these other organisms for food, shelter, and more.

There's also a pipeline problem for antibiotics, as the WHO notes in its 2023 report because there's a limited amount of research and funding for the development of new antimicrobial drugs that could tackle the rising resistance in human, animal, and plant populations. Additionally, "AMR affects countries in all regions and at all income levels. Its drivers and consequences are exacerbated by poverty and inequality, and low- and middle-income countries are most affected."

Researchers behind the study published in Nature “looked for links between temperature and antibiotic resistance by comparing bacterial data — collected from people treated in hospitals in 28 provinces and regions across China — with information on average air temperatures in cities in the same regions. The team corrected for factors that could affect rates of drug resistance, including the level of antibiotic consumption, average humidity, yearly rainfall and population density. They found that, for every 1 °C increase in average air temperature, there was a 14% increase in the proportion of samples containing K. pneumoniae that were resistant to a type of antibiotic called carbapenems. These drugs are usually reserved for treating bacteria that are resistant to all other antibiotics.”

While more studies are needed to continue to understand the link between AMR and climate change and find a path forward, it's clear that as the world warms, we can expect further disruptions and developments regarding deadly ancient viruses, diseases, and bacteria around the world.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett