The Ice Cap Apocalypse

// Brocken Inaglory/Creative Commons

This is the second article in a WEEKEND series by Aishwarya Vijay. Taking the time to read intense science magazines and research so that we don’t have to, Aishwarya will be giving our faithful readers regular updates on the field, so we aren’t all taken by surprise when, like, the sun melts.

I care about the ice caps melting, I really do. I have watched all the requisite “Blue Planet” DVDs, donated to my local aquarium and signed countless online petitions. Polar bears are cute and cuddly (albeit sort of ferocious, but whatever) – watching them drift away on ice floes to sad “Titanic” music is usually enough to convince me that something needs to be done.

But now, some would have us believe that the cause is becoming more urgent. Recent findings featured in both The Guardian and Scientific American claim that the melting ice caps are releasing ancient microbes that have been frozen for hundreds of thousands of years. According to these guys, everything from ancient strains of malaria to the BUBONIC PLAGUE (!!) might now be released into the atmosphere due to global warming.

If this seems straight out of a weird hybrid of “The Walking Dead” and those pandemic movies, well … it is. Although this argument is interesting and is certain to get people’s attention, the facts need to be looked at more carefully. Something that died years ago and was preserved in ice just to come back alive years later probably falls into the field of cryogenics, featured in such reputable movies as “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” and “Titanic 2.” There is limited and pretty sketchy proof that cryogenics actually works. For it to work, you’d need many chemicals other than simply ice – the procedure is extremely detailed and specific. It does not, most probably, work for 20,000-year-old mosquitoes, larvae and fleas. They are usually dead after five minutes, because the ice destroys their cell structure. It’s probably fair to say that squashed, dead bugs are not incredibly effective at transmitting disease.

The authors of these studies, rather than citing any scientific papers, reference occurrences of diseases prevalent during the time period when the ice caps started melting significantly. For example, they claim that because recent Pertussis outbreaks, which cause whooping cough, have dramatically increased this year in Washington, Colorado and Wisconsin, ancient Bordetella pertussis bacteria must have been released from the nearby ice caps. It is plausible that bacteria, which are not multicellular organisms, could be preserved in ice and maintain their function for many years. But what about Alaska or Canada, places much closer to the ice caps – and before you say it, there are people there to get infected. And the fact is, there are things called confounding variables, so outside factors unrelated to climate may well be causing whooping cough. For example, there is the fact that Pertussis is extremely contagious. It is more likely that one child in a crowded school caught it and spread it to everybody else.

The main concern here is not actually the lack of evidence used in making these claims – this happens often enough in journals and is usually shot down by the scientific community. The real problem is the use of attention-grabbing, oversimplified titles that are aimed towards a general audience and are blatantly deceptive. The same technique was used when a few researchers found sketchy correlations in disease incidence among vaccinated children and leaped to the extreme conclusion that all vaccines were harmful. The consequences were disastrous: Many children who did not get the vaccine after the article was published were subject to a semi-vaccine-resistant strain of the virus and got even sicker. It is important in science that we report the correct and specific results, even if they might not be the most interesting, and leave the sensationalism to politics (but actually…).

So for now, rather than alerting your relatives to the possibility of a pathogen-induced apocalypse, it’s probably better to just send them some polar bear holiday cards (only $7!).