Sea Ice Loss Is Causing Deadly Virus To Spread Among Marine Animals

Marine animals not only have to deal with habitat loss caused by rising sea levels and all the pollution humans dump in the ocean such as plastics, they now are at serious risk of being wiped out by a new deadly virus that is spreading like wildfire because of sea ice melt.

Accelerated sea ice melt due to rising global temperatures as a result of climate change has unleashed a virus upon harbor seals that has crossed over to infect other marine animals, including sea otters and sea lions among others, killing thousands upon thousands.

Also known as PDV, the Phocine distemper virus has been identified as the culprit, and a new study by researchers has revealed that it’s spreading because sea ice loss is allowing marine species to move like never before. So, when they come into contact with other species, they end up transmitting the virus.

It all started 17 years ago in 2002 with the deaths of tens of thousands of harbor seals in the northern Atlantic in a year that also saw the lowest ice year on record at the time. That same year, the virus inexplicably spread to sea otters and other marine species in the Pacific Northwest, confounding scientists.

“We didn’t understand how a virus from the Atlantic ended up in these sea otters,” University of California Davis scientist Tracey Goldstein told National Geographic. “It’s not a species that ranges widely.”

Goldstein and her team looked at over a decade worth of data in a study published by the Scientific Reports journal and realized that sea ice loss in the Arctic was the culprit for why the virus spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

“It was a perfect storm in 2002,” Goldstein said in a press release. “It was the lowest ice year on record at the time, and at the same time, in August and September, there was a really large outbreak. The loss of sea ice is leading marine wildlife to seek and forage in new habitats and removing that physical barrier, allowing for new pathways for them to move. As animals move and come in contact with other species, they carry opportunities to introduce and transmit new infectious disease, with potentially devastating impacts.”

Indeed, animals that have not come in contact with such diseases before may not have a natural immunity or resistance to them, which means a single virus can potentially wipe out a large population before it is stopped if it can be stopped at all.

“The virus has been shown to spread pretty easily between marine mammals,” Marine Mammal Center vice president of veterinary medicine Shawn Johnson said. “The Arctic could be a perfect melting pot for transmission of the disease.”

It’s not only a disaster for marine species, it’s a disaster for humans because we depend on the ecosystems these species keep in balance. And as climate change and human activities continue to put this balance at risk, a deadly disease is yet another major blow our world doesn’t need.

“When we see these changes happening in animals, we can’t ignore them, because the impacts on people and the planet are not far behind,” lead study author Elizabeth VanWormer said. “This shows how interconnected these things are — the health of people, animals and the planet.”

So, sea-level rise is not the only problem we have to worry about because of sea ice loss. We now have to worry about new disease outbreaks and the potential breakdown of marine species populations. And as the Amazon rainforest continues to burn, who knows what new diseases will be unleashed upon the world in the near future. All of this underscores the immediate necessity to combat climate change.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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