Ebenezor Scrooge, the unforgettable miser from Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol, was haunted by three ghosts on Christmas Eve — the ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet-to-come. But science, not literature, is knocking at our collective doorsteps now — and it’s a knock of the ghosts of our past, present and future.
A recent report published by the BBC gets the alarm bells ringing with the sheer horror of its revelations. Climate change, as we know well, is causing the Arctic ice to melt away far more rapidly than normal. What we haven’t known yet, though, is that there are diseases hidden inside these layers of snow and if the melting continues unabated, they will soon be “waking up”. No, this isn’t some doomsday theory — but these are the ghosts of our past come to haunt us. Ancient viruses and bacteria have been lying dormant, buried under layers of permafrost for thousands of years. In the natural course of things, they remain undisturbed. But with the melting speeded up by global warming, this Pandora’s Box may well be unlocked.
If this seems too far-fetched, here is the description of a study carried out by NASA scientists in 2005: frozen bacteria and viruses as old as 32,000 years were successfully revived by them. Just to put the number of years in context, these microbes belong to the Pleistocene period — the time when the planet was inhabited by woolly mammoths, to be precise. Taken from a frozen pond in Alaska, the microbes apparently began “swimming around, seemingly unaffected,” when the ice was thawed. And that’s not the worst yet, because just about two years later scientists again revived an ancient bacterium — 8 million years old — from beneath the surface of a glacier in Antarctica. Those are epic time differences, but the darkness and extreme low temperatures in the permafrost make it possible for these ancient evils to survive.
Further details send further shivers down the spine — for instance, frost gathered close to mass graves of people who died from epidemics might still hold the bacteria in a suspended state — with the dreadful possibility of their being revived. Small pox and the Spanish flu are among the more recent eradicated diseases that might just come back to haunt us. Those are the ghosts of our past whose reappearance is inextricably connected to the deeds of our present.
Utter human disregard for the planet lies at the core of this disaster-in-the-making. Unbridled carbon emissions, wasting of precious resources and indiscriminate pursuit of materialism is what has landed us here in the first place. In places like Alaska and Siberia, and even caves inside Mexico — where these dormant bacteria have been discovered — commercial activities like mining and drilling pose a very grave threat of bringing to life this nightmare. And just like Ebenezer Scrooge, you are left panting for breath, asking the question, are those the visions of things that will be, or visions of things that may be, only? In our case, the question is — are we going to keep waiting for laws and governments to take charge of saving the planet, or are we going to put in individual efforts at preserving resources, adopting eco-friendly habits, shunning wastefulness and standing in solidarity with the environment? Are we going to care enough to bear a few personal sacrifices for the prevention of a larger catastrophe?
The answer, of course, is exactly what Scrooge himself spelt out: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead…But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” Precisely.
Zehra Naqvi