A pandora's box of 28 ancient viruses are trapped in glaciers — and climate change could set them free

Guliya ice cap is home to the oldest ice on Earth and now, also 28 previously unknown virusesByrd Center/Ohio State University

  • A team of scientists from the US and China have discovered 28 previously unknown virus groups in samples from the oldest glacial ice on Earth.
  • As climate change melts the glacier, it's possible that these pathogens could get released into the atmosphere.
  • Even in the best-case scenario, the melting ice would still result in the loss of archives that could hold clues of Earth's climate in the past.
It's hard enough to deal with diseases that plague the world today but things could get even worse with global warming. A team of researchers from the US and China has discovered 28 new virus groups in samples of ice from one of the planet's oldest glaciers.

As climate change takes over Earth — melting ice could let those viruses out into the world.

A joint research team from the United States and China ventured to the Guliya Ice Cap in Tibet in 2015. They drew a core from the ice that was more than 1,000 feet long, the bottom of which dates back to more than half a million years ago.Giuliano Bertagna/Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.


The best-case scenario is despite the melting ice, the viruses won't activate. Even so, it would be a grave loss of information.

"At a minimum, [ice melt] could lead to the loss of microbial and viral archives that could be diagnostic and informative of past Earth climate regimes," said the study published in the pre-print server bioRxiv.

In the worst-case scenario, the melting ice would release the pathogens — good and bad — into the environment.


In 2015, a joint research team from the United States and China ventured to the Guliya Ice Cap in Tibet, and captured the oldest ice core ever drilled outside of the North and South Poles. The core contains more than half a million years of Earth's climate history.Giuliano Bertagna/Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.

Ice from 15,000 years ago
The scientists took samples from two ice cores from the Guliya ice cap on the northwestern Tibetan Plateau in China dating back nearly 15,000 years.

In comparing the two ice-cores, scientists found that the microbes found within them varied drastically. This suggests that the two cores represent two very different climate conditions, according to the study.


Lonnie Thompson, Distinguished University Professor in the School of Earth Sciences at The Ohio State University, cuts an ice core retrieved from the Guliya Ice Cap in the Kunlun Mountains in Tibet in 2015.Giuliano Bertagna/Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.

Only 28 of the viruses that the scientists found have never been seen before, however, overall they were able to detect 33 different virus groups.

"Glaciers around the world are rapidly shrinking, primarily due to the anthropogenic-enhanced warming of Earth's ocean-atmosphere system, and this will release glacial microbes and viruses that have been trapped and preserved for tens to hundreds of thousands of years," said the study.

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