With the COVID-19 pandemic coming to an end, scientists are now looking into possible causes of future pandemics. The need to prepare for future pandemics is growing as we know that more will arrive, it’s just a matter of when. Climate change has threatened Earth even before COVID-19 and is a likely contributor to the next big pandemic. Increased storm strength and intense heat waves in various parts of the country can all be tied back to the increasing effects of climate change.
Recently, British Columbia has had a record-breaking heatwave. On June 28th, during the peak of the heat wave, they hit a record for 911 calls for medical emergencies doubling to about 3000 calls daily. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke have become a top concern for the healthcare system and paramedics, making climate change a public health emergency.
Not only is an increase in hotter weather demanding on the physical body but it also increases threats from the natural environment around us. Climate change is slowly unleashing infectious diseases. Mosquitoes could possibly be the start of the next pandemic based on their history of creating havoc that has been loosely monitored in the past. They are most known for carrying the West Nile Virus which can be transmitted through their bite. Zika virus is another virus that is carried by the Aedes Albopictus mosquito. Asian Tiger mosquitoes that are commonly found in the tropics were recently spotted in the Windsor – Essex region of Ontario. This is a concern because an increase in temperature also means an increase in mosquito-borne diseases since mosquitoes tend to prefer warmer climates. Mosquitos are driven by temperature, from how long they live to how many people they impact. Warmer temperatures mean that they can fly to higher latitudes and have longer periods of virus transmission.
Bats are another species that are known to be potential carriers of viruses. They are responsible for the spread of SARS, Ebola, and COVID 19. With climate change affecting the habitats of many animals, migration towards stabiler climates occurs. The only problem is that like other mammals, humans move towards stable climates. Therefore, species that we would not normally run into are starting to show up unexpectedly, potentially carrying infections with them.
Scientists are also worried about the increase in sea ice melting. An increase in sea level would cause a decrease in habitats causing migration of species. In the ‘90s, 760 billion tons of ice was lost annually which increased in the 2010s to 1.2 trillion tons. It is predicted that by 2100 the sea level will rise by 16 inches.
Not only is increased sea levels a concern with glaciers melting but scientists are concerned about viruses that have been frozen for years, hidden within the ice. When ice freezes it takes particles from the atmosphere around it, including viruses. Potential viruses that existed thousands of years ago could plunge humanity into a new pandemic. Scientists observed a 15,000 year old piece of ice where they discovered that it contains genetic codes for 33 viruses, 28 of which are new. Viruses, such as smallpox and the Spanish flu, were also observed within frozen tissues samples. Therefore, viruses we thought were eradicated could be thriving within the ice, ready to be reborn.
Overall, climate change could be costing us more in the future than we think. Habitat destruction, increased temperatures, different migration patterns of species, and loss of sea ice are all important factors that could influence a new pandemic. It is imperative that mitigation and adaptation measures are put into place to decrease these factors. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the flaws within our health system, some countries completely collapsing. If we can’t mitigate climate change effects directly then increasing the structure of the healthcare system would potentially help lessen the blow of a future pandemic.