The “novel” coronavirus means that this virus is new to us humans and to our immune systems. While the early cases of COVID-19 seemed to be linked to Chinese wet-meat market, there are more viruses trapped in ice near the poles that are in danger of being released due to global warming.

Viruses and climate are connected because everything on Earth is connected. Earth and its surrounding atmosphere form a bubble in which a lot happens: weather, wars, births, deaths, oceans circulating, forests growing or being cut, etc. Yet these seemingly unrelated things are intimately connected and trapped together as repeatedly recycled material.

In studying atmospheric chemistry, my main focus is on one of these materials that is recycled into different forms on our planet: carbon. When materials made of carbon (such as wood, coal, oil, methane, gasoline) are burned, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the air. As CO2 collects in the atmosphere, this powerful greenhouse gas acts like a car windshield, trapping heat from the sun and warming the planet just like the inside of a car on a sunny day — which has meant predominantly higher overall temperatures in most places across the planet. This year, 2020, is already on track to be one of the five hottest years since records began.

These warmer conditions are causing rapid melting of ice that can house ancient viruses.

The ray of hope amidst this pandemic is that it has demonstrated how dramatically human CO2 pollution can drop, even while essential work continues. This health crisis has shown that what seemed impossible only two months ago, now seems possible: We can meet our CO2-reduction within the 12-year deadline facing us while better protecting human health well into the future.

Tara Illgner

Charlottesville

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