Frozen deep within the earth, in the permafrost of remote, high-latutide regions like Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, and northern Canada, lurk microbes that have remained dormant for millennia. These ancient pathogens lie in wait, sleepily embraced by the frozen arms of the earth – until the permafrost starts to thaw. Recent research points to the fact that as global warming continues to raise the earth’s temperature, these ‘zombie’ pathogens could very well awaken and pose unprecedented risks to modern ecosystems.

So, how concerned should we be about this ancient enemy? According to Giovanni Strona, lead researcher at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and Corey Bradshaw, director of Flinders University’s Global Ecology Laboratory in Australia, it’s not a matter of imminent global catastrophe, but it’s definitely worth a closer look.

The two scientists, building on the work of Claverie, an Aix-Marseille University professor known for reviving these ‘zombie’ viruses from the permafrost, ran tens of thousands of simulation iterations. They tracked how these ancient viruses impacted a simulated bacterial community’s species diversity. And they found some rather thought-provoking results.

About one percent of the ancient viruses caused substantial disruptions within their digital ecosystem, some increasing diversity by as much as 12%, while others decreased diversity by a staggering 32%. This could, via a domino effect, throw the whole system off balance and have devastating effects on the ecosystem’s availability of resources.

Despite the centuries-long dormancy, these viruses proved to be far from feeble. They not only survived within the digital ecosystem but evolved – a testament to their adaptive abilities – which could make them all the more formidable if released into our modern world. However, Kimberly Miner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory cautions against pressing the panic button just yet, calling the chance of infection from these emerging pathogens “highly improbable.”

Yet, the researchers do signal a need for urgent action, particularly regarding global warming. With each degree that the earth’s temperature rises, the more common abrupt thaws of Arctic permafrost become, and the higher the chance of these ancient pathogens surfacing.

Regarding their impact on humanity, Strona and Bradshaw suggest that while the immediate risk might be low, it is critical to prepare for any potential unforeseen scenarios. With the planet losing its battle against global temperature rise, it’s not inconceivable that the resulting disruptions could awaken these ancient pathogens from their icy slumbers.

The researchers used a simulation software called Avida, whether pathogens would be successful at infiltrating an ecosystem. Their digital model produced a sobering forecast: significant loss in ecosystem diversity.

But before we start fortifying our homes against the ancient viral onslaught, there’s a silver lining. The regions where the permafrost and these potential threatening organisms exist are sparsely populated, meaning these malevolent microbes may not have anybody to infect even if they break free. Moreover, permafrost thaws gradually, releasing the majority of the 4 sextillion cells it traps in a controlled manner.

While we should take comfort in these mitigating circumstances, one thing’s for sure: as the climate crisis continues unabated, more research is needed. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially when it comes to protecting ourselves and our planet from the unexpected threats that lie frozen in permafrost. Solutions lie in simultaneously addressing the acceleration of global warming and ensuring our scientific readiness for whatever lies asleep beneath the frosty surface. When it comes to climate change, it seems, even the past is not yet done making its mark.