According to a recent study, the melting of Arctic sea ice could result in the emergence of a deadly virus. This might endanger marine life in the North Pacific. The pathogen Phocine Distemper Virus (PDV), killed thousands of European harbor seals in the North Atlantic in 2002. Later it was discovered in northern sea otters in Alaska in 2004 raising questions about when and how the virus got there.
The 15-year study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows how the radical reforming of sea ice may have opened trails that connect between the Arctic and sub-Arctic seas. This was impossible previously. The loss of sea ice will seriously affect marine wildlife would search for new habitats while also removing a physical barrier that allows them to move along new pathways. As animals move and interact with other species, they carry the potential to introduce and transmit new infectious diseases with disastrous consequences.
Ice Melting Causes the Virus Spread
In the beginning of 2003, the authors discovered widespread infection and exposure to the virus across the North Pacific Ocean, with a second higher exposure and infection in 2009. These peaks corresponded to decreases in Arctic sea ice extent. During 2001 to 2016, researchers collected samples of marine mammals to test for phocine virus exposure and infection. Seals that are associated with ice, northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, and northern sea otters were sampled from Southeast Alaska to Russia, along the Aleutian Islands and the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. The Arctic Ocean sea ice and open water routes from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific oceans were also evaluated. Satellite telemetry data assisted the researchers in connecting animal movement and risk factor data. This demonstrates that exposed animals have the potential to transport the phocine distemper virus over long distances.
The researchers says that when sea ice continues to melt, the spreading chances of this virus and other pathogens will increase between North Atlantic and North Pacific marine mammals. This study emphasizes the importance of understanding PDV transmission and the potential for outbreaks in vulnerable species in this rapidly changing environment.