The war in Ukraine that could turn into a nuclear war as last night’s Russian attack on a nuclear plant starkly reminded us, hides from view another dangerous battleground, the Arctic Circle. With climate change melting the ice at the Pole North and opening new trade routes, we are witnessing what was termed in an article published on Impakter two years ago, a “Scramble for the Arctic” by all Arctic Circle powers, including Russia – a scramble that could potentially lead to a devastating political and military confrontation.
But the Arctic holds another danger: It is also a virus “hotspot” for an as yet unknown virus that could cause another worldwide pandemic.
Now that we have felt the full horror of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that has drastically changed our lives, we know that it is not likely to be the last of such potential disasters.
Scientists know that bacteria and viruses can survive for millions of years in very cold environments, that global warming increases the possibility they may emerge and conceivably affect the people, animals, and plants that live in such regions.
Thus, both the Arctic and Antarctic Circles could be the place where the next threat to global stability originates, this time attacking our collective health and wellbeing.
To prevent or contain that possibility, we need a robust global cooperative One Health effort, including research in human and veterinary health, in environmental, economic, and other social sciences, to identify the threat early and prepare for an effective response. A virus “hotspot” is something that can erupt anytime, anywhere pausing a real public health risk, and only close monitoring can effectively address the risk.
Here I shall focus on the Arctic Circle – but the conclusions apply equally well to the Antarctic.
The Arctic Circle and Permafrost: How it can turn into a virus “hotspot”
The entire Arctic Circle is massive, covering roughly almost 10,000 miles, coupled with an additional area north of the Circle amounting to about 4% of Earth’s surface.
The Circle passes through the Arctic Ocean, the Scandinavian Peninsula, North Asia, Northern America, and Greenland. Russia is the country with the largest landmass and with 65% of its territory in the Arctic Circle. Of that, 10% is tundra, a marshy plain, stretching from its Finnish border to its Pacific coast. In this region, the tundra is where most people, fauna, and flora exist and where there is permafrost.
Permafrost is what climate change is about to alter forever and here is why that change is so dangerous.
Permafrost, which means “permanently” frozen earth, is formed in high-latitude and altitudes above the Arctic Circle—namely in Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia.
Environmental scientists are concerned that the continued expansion of human activities both in and outside tundra areas will affect the integrity and sustainability of Arctic tundra ecosystems.
For example, increased occurrence of tundra fires decreases the coverage of lichens, which could, in turn, potentially reduce caribou habitats and subsistence resources for other Arctic species.
An alarming incident on Russia’s northern coast
During an international U.S. NASA-organized 2019 workshop to discuss emerging disease threats, Alexander Volkovitskiy from the Russian Academy of Sciences recounted an alarming incident. It took place in 2009 on the Yamal peninsula on Russia’s northern coast where local people herd hundreds of thousands of reindeer.
That summer, temperatures were unseasonably warm and some of the permafrost thawed. The bacterium that causes anthrax – which had been present on the peninsula for over a century – emerged from the soil and spread like wildfire.
Before the outbreak was brought under control, more than 2000 reindeer had perished. Dozens of people also caught the disease, including an unnamed boy who died.
There may have been other such events in other countries, which went unreported given the remoteness of the region, either not known or not properly identified.
The Current Situation:
At the 2021 COP26 conference a new Adaptation Fund was created and will be used in part to address Arctic matters. Major contribution commitments were made by the United States, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom, and other European countries.
While there are multiple references to multidisciplinary research and actions, lacking is explicit “One Health” as an overarching concept.
This is also the case in the recently released Sixth Assessment Report “ Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Why Russia is Critical: It covers the area where a virus “hotspot” is most likely to emerge
The Russian government drew up its climate change adaptation plan in 2019, a year after ratifying the Paris Agreement. This coincided with Putin’s changing views on climate change science compared to some twenty years ago at the International Conference on Climate Change when he infamously stated that, “an increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.”
A 2020 Russia’s “strategy for the development of the Arctic Zone” puts economic development regarding transportation and extractive industries at its core, however attaching larger importance to the environment than it had in its previous policy document. Most of Russia’s climate change adaptation measures are to be developed and published by 2023.
What is most concerning about those plans is that, as of now, there are no specific targets in place to mitigate the consequences of Arctic warming and address permafrost degradation. Much less anything about monitoring a possible “virus hotspot”.
Other Arctic Circle countries’ plans
According to Arctic Institute reports published in 2021, below is a quick overview of the other Arctic country plans and policies. What is notable is that all those countries express concern over global warming and its impact on the Arctic and include measures, with varying degrees of specification and detail, to address the climate issue.
Equally notable, none of them mentions the public health danger arising from “virus hotspots” nor sets up a One Health approach to monitor the possibility that a virus could develop.
United States of America:
The U.S. recently became a member of the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action, which inter alia, deals with Arctic climate and economic policy priorities, and places emphasis on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest wildlife refuge in the U.S., and includes a temporary moratorium on federal government energy development-related activities.
In “Moving Forward Together”, the new framework that directs Canada’s 2030 Agenda for achieving sustainability, the Canadian Government priorities and activities and investments in the Arctic are laid out.
They include support to science, knowledge and research that is meaningful for local communities and for decision-making, assessment of the probable effects of climate change and support for healthy ecosystems in the Arctic and North.
The EU 2021 strategy document, the European Green Deal, specifies it will seek a ban on exploiting new fossil fuel deposits in the Arctic to protect a region severely affected by climate change.
There is also reference to the Svalbard Treaty (in force since 1925) that recognizes the sovereignty of Norway over the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and regulates the demilitarization of the archipelago; in relation to the treaty, the EU’s exclusive competence for conservation of marine biological resources is recognized and applies.
The Norwegian Government’s latest Arctic Policy document focuses on national security, stability and international cooperation seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 % by 2030. This new Arctic policy focuses on oceans, dramatic change of biodiversity, and pollution in the Arctic.
Sweden updated strategy and planning for the Arctic region in September 2020 with climate and the environment, polar research and environmental protection, sustainable economic development is among the priorities.
Finland’s strategy for the Arctic region was adopted in 2021, with its policies and plans extending to 2030. All activities in the Arctic must be based on the carrying capacity of the natural environment, the protection of the climate, sustainable development principles and respect for the rights of indigenous populations.
Iceland’s Arctic policy priority areas include climate change, sustainable use of natural resources, and the rights of Indigenous peoples (collaboration with Greenland).
The concept of a sustainable Arctic was a pillar of Iceland’s Chairmanship in the Arctic Council in 2019-2021, along with protection of the north polar marine environment, supporting the Arctic research, and green energy alternative.
Needed Soon: A focus on One Health to monitor possible virus “hotspots”
We are currently embroiled in the conflict created by Russia with its invasion of Ukraine. Before this, Russia has used the Arctic melting ice as an opening to project its naval power, and more.
This would be worrisome enough, but these are conventional challenges that have been experienced and dealt with in the past by agreement and diplomacy.
What is unconventional with the tundra warming and permafrost melting is the possibility of a new infectious outbreak emerging from this corner of the world – in short, a virus hotspot that gets overlooked and is left to fester until it turns into either a regional or global threat.
We need collective recognition of these public health dangers, and all Arctic Circle states should address them with greater urgency and specific mitigation and adaptation plans. And to be effective, they require a coordinated and collaborative multidisciplinary preventative approach that involves the widest range of epidemiologists, virologists, human and animal health specialists, social scientists, and other specialists.
In sum, a One Health approach must be part of the solution. Once adopted, it will move us from good intentions to concrete action.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. In the Featured Photo: A Nenets woman stands with reindeer on the Yamal peninsula, north of the polar circle, August 4, 2009. A 12-year-old boy has died and 20 people have been infected in an anthrax outbreak in Russia’s northern Yamalo-Nenets region, the local authorities said. Source: Denis Sinyakov/Reuters