Climate change is a subject that has long been circulating through the news and world politics. Although there are countless side effects of climate change, researchers have recently discovered another phenomenon occurring: key marine animal species across the globe are dying due to a virus being released from melting icecaps.
Phocine distemper virus (PDV) is a pathogen that has long been affecting marine mammal populations across the Arctic. Its origin baffled researchers for a long time, until they noticed the link between the spread of the virus and the rate of the icecaps melting.
It is reported that since 1988, the virus, caused by the icecaps melting due to climate change, has killed tens of thousands of marine animals. Scientists became curious how the virus was being released when the disease, which had previously circulated in certain species of seals, began to spread through otters and sea lions, as well.
After studying data for 15 years, researchers noted that Arctic sea ice is a necessity for marine mammals, but when ocean temperatures rise, they are forced to cross paths with new species in pursuit of their food. It is this interaction that makes the virus spread to new species and what tipped off researchers to its source.
Exposure of the virus has peaked twice; once in 2003 and again in 2009. In both cases, the outbreaks came after record-low levels of sea ice. These outbreaks reportedly occur every five to 10 years. According to NASA, sea ice hit its second-lowest level in 2019, so marine mammals could easily be facing another outbreak soon. The virus is prevalent in the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
PDV luckily doesn’t infect humans, but it has been compared to the measles. Both are respiratory diseases that spread through contact—and both are highly contagious. Although the virus itself doesn’t affect people, there have been indirect consequences of declining marine mammal populations. As seals and fish move further away from shore, Alaskans find it harder to hunt and maintain their livelihoods.
There is no known cure for the virus, but there are ways to slow it down. Marine mammals are unable to keep up with their changing environments and circumstances caused by climate change. People can make greater efforts to reduce their individual carbon footprints, which can come together as a global effort.
“It is important to reduce our carbon footprint because within the next century, we could experience extreme weather patterns, a loss in biodiversity, and mass extinction, just to name a few tragedies caused by climate change,” said Rebecca Marolf (’23). “U.S. citizens release the most carbon dioxide per capita, and it is important that we take the necessary steps to reduce our carbon footprint for future generations.”
Making efforts to reduce individual carbon footprints can often be easier said than done, but there are easy ways to make a difference. “Personally, I have taken initiative to stop consuming large amounts of meat including beef, chicken, turkey, etc. I will only eat venison and meats that my family and I harvest from hunting,” said Marolf. “I have also changed my clothes shopping habits and started thrifting. I have found that thrifting used clothes has been very fulfilling for my bank account and for the environment.”
There are even more ways for students to help the environment. For example, things as simple as reducing the use of plastic water bottles or turning off lights when they aren’t being used can collectively make a big difference in the world’s carbon footprint. Efforts like these, together, can help to slow down the effects of climate change and provide a safer world for both humans and animals, such as those being affected by PDV.