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23 June 2017

Arctic at Risk of Tropical Diseases due to Climate Change

The warming of the planet is having more of a sinister effect than just melting the ice caps and raising ocean levels.

As a result of the increasing temperatures around the world, areas that were once clear of certain diseases are now becoming susceptible to them. For life forms which don’t have access to advanced healthcare facilities or an immune system that has developed some form of tolerance against the illness, this is grave news.

The reason that this is happening is because pathogens that function in warmer climates are now gaining access to areas that were once too cold for them to survive in. For example, deadly Vibrio illnesses which thrive in warm water are increasing in number and have been spotted close to the Arctic Circle, a part of the world that was once safe from such bacterium due to its climate. Successive heatwaves year after year have produced temperatures never before recorded in northern Scandinavia, transforming the usually frozen environment into a hotbed of potential disease.

Craig Baker-Austin of the UK’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences was shocked by the illnesses recorded in the area, stating that:

“This is an environment that is frozen for a good part of the year. Climate warming has greatly expanded the range over which these bacteria can proliferate – with wide ranging impacts on associated infections.”

This is just one of many diseases that now have a hospitable new environment to infect, and it could prove to be fatal for the Arctic’s ecosystem which is already struggling under the pressure of climate change. It doesn’t help that the area is also at risk from its own set of deadly pathogens, including smallpox and anthrax, which are believed to be locked away in the melting permafrost. With all these problems plaguing the Arctic, there’s major concern that the effects they cause may soon become irreversible.

And it’s not just the northernmost part of the world that’s at risk – it’s everywhere.

In reference to the spread of disease, microbiologist Stanley Maloy stated that:

“Probably almost everybody is going to feel this at some point in their life. It may be a transmission of a mosquito-borne disease in a place it didn’t used to be. It may be a simple case of salmonella. But it’s going to affect us all.”

Shifts in global temperatures have already led mosquitoes to spread illnesses like malaria and the Zika virus in countries like the US, while other changes in precipitation, wind and heat are causing other diseases to move a lot more freely around the world. It’s difficult for scientists to identify what the impact of these effects will have because of the complexity in how ecosystems change, and the unpredictability of the smallest elements like insects and microbes. While they can make predictions about how a rise in temperature and other elemental factors will influence the spread of disease, they can’t say anything for certain.

With a number of cases already identified of illnesses happening in unexpected locations, though, it’s pretty clear that climate change is definitely affecting the spread of disease for the worst. Given the fragility of the Arctic and other areas that are suffering because of global warming, this is a very concerning outcome.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.