Global warming could reawaken ancient diseases — even the Black Death — according to an Oxford University professor.
Higher global temperatures would melt ice sheets that store long-buried bacteria, spreading disease and potentially causing new global pandemics.
Professor Peter Frankopan offered his prediction at the Cheltenham Literary Festival on Friday, as reported by The Times.
The professor of global history began by stating in his view there was “absolutely no chance” the international community would hit the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rises under 1.5C.
“If we go over that degree change, it’s not about the Maldives being harder to visit on holiday or migration of people — it’s about what happens when permafrost unfreezes and the release of biological agents that have been buried for millennia,” he said.
With ancient bacteria released again into the Earth’s ecosystems, there would be a big risk of the global population being hit by diseases it can’t handle.
Chief among such diseases is the bubonic plague, which Prof Frankopan said was spread in the Middle Ages largely due to a rise in global temperatures.
“For example, in the 1340s, a 1.5 degree movement of heating of the Earth’s atmosphere — probably because of solar flares or volcanic activity — changes the cycle of Yersinia pestis bacterium,” he said.
“That 1.5 degree difference allowed a small microbe to develop into the Black Death.”
While bubonic plague still exists, cases worldwide are incredibly rare nowadays.
However, if Prof Frankopan’s predictions are realised, an outbreak could be wide-reaching and devastating.
He said such a possibility should be taken more seriously than a rise in sea levels or droughts, as the Black Death wiped out between 75 and 200 million people in Europe during the pandemics of the 14th and 15th centuries.
“These are the things we should be hugely worried about,” he said.
While his warnings draw a worst-case scenario for future global warming, there are recent examples of melting permafrost presenting a serious hazard to people.
In 2016, a 12-year-old boy died and more than 40 people were hospitalised in Siberia, after having been infected by anthrax.
The anthrax had been released when high summer temperatures melted permafrost, which had kept a deer buried for decades following a previous outbreak of the dangerous bacteria.
Since this deer had been killed by anthrax, its exposure caused the previously frozen bacteria to be released into the area’s water and soil, where it then entered the food chain.
Over 1500 reindeer were infected and killed as a result, and since some of these had been eaten by local residents, they too were infected.
Prof Frankopan’s predictions also come amid a growing slew of studies examining some of the more indirect effects of global warming.
Yesterday, an international team of climate scientists publishing in journal Nature Plants wrote that severe climate change would cause worldwide beer shortages.
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