Netflix's 'V Wars' Vampires Are Less Scary Than the Real Dangers From Microorganisms in Melting Arctic Ice

Vampires are back in the new Netflix series V Wars, which uses an almost-plausible climate change scenario to unleash its fictional vampiric disease. But could melting arctic ice really expose humanity to previously unheard of epidemics?

"We know that climate change is causing glacial deterioration. We also know that there are viruses and bacterias trapped in that now-melting ice," Dr. Luther Swann (Ian Somerhalder) says in the first episode of V Wars, a new Netflix Original Series released on Thursday. "Now, let's just say the prehistoric equivalent of the Zika virus, Ebola, bubonic plague, were to appear as a result of the melt. Our bodies have no immunity."

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Dr. Luther Swann and his friend Michael are quarantined after being exposed to a prion disease frozen in ice for tens of thousands of years. Netflix

Dr. Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist who researches climate change's impacts on microorganisms in soil systems for the U.S. Department of Energy at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, says the fictional doctor's concerns are overstated.

"Viruses that infect humans need the host to survive, so they just aren't going to be alive if the host is dead, or frozen in permafrost," Dr. Jansson told Newsweek. "There have been studies of viruses in permafrost, we've also looked at that. And there are viruses in permafrost, but they infect bacteria—they're part of the natural ecosystem. Or they can infect small protozoa, but not humans or animals."

Genomics research conducted by Professor Jean-Michel Claverie of the School of Medicine of Aix-Marseille University in France in 2014 were able to revive a virus trapped in permafrost for 30,000 years, but it only targeted amoebas. Cases of anthrax from frozen reindeer bodies have also cropped up, but Dr. Jansson pointed out to Newsweek that the deadly anthrax bacterium has attributes—a dormant spore state, most importantly—that make it more likely to survive, even without a host.

The fictional Dr. Swann's diagnosis on V Wars is a little more startling: "I don't think it's going to be asteroids or nuclear war that wipes us out. It's going to be this: ancient form of these pathogens could start a pandemic that makes the bubonic plague look like a chicken pox party. This isn't nature crying out for help. These are warning shots."

Since V Wars is about an epidemic of vampirism more than paleopathology, Luther's predictions come true immediately. In the first episode he's whisked from his lecture to a ruined Arctic research facility, where something has been unleashed from the ice. The disease transforms his friend Michael Fayne (Adrian Holmes), who soon complains of food tasting "off," strange cravings and heightened sensitivity to sounds. It doesn't take long until he's a full-blown, bloodsucking vampire.

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Michael (Adrian Holmes) is soon overwhelmed by the vampire prion disease. Netflix

Not long after, the stability of all human society is at stake. But while a vampire prion disease being unleashed from Arctic ice is strictly a horror scenario (similar to The X-Files episode "Ice"), there is a ripped-from-the-headlines aspect to V Wars. While the vampire disease in V Wars won't be spreading through your city anytime soon, the consequences of melting permafrost in Arctic regions might be even more dire.

"Permafrost is currently a reservoir of organic carbon that's been trapped since the last Ice Age, and as the permafrost starts to thaw, the microorganisms that are there start to break down and release greenhouse gases," Dr. Jansson said. "It's a huge danger."

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This chart shows how global carbon dioxide emission levels have risen since 1990. COP24 is attempting to build on the Paris climate deal and develop more climate-conscious policies to limit damaging emissions. Statista

The decay of thawed microorganisms is already releasing carbon dioxide and methane—a greenhouse gas with twenty times the atmospheric effect of CO2—but the problem is only going to get worse as glacial ice, permafrost and other Arctic environments experience record high temperatures.

"Permafrost is very deep," Dr. Jansson said. "There's as much carbon currently trapped in permafrost as there is currently in the atmosphere and vegetation combined."

The feedback loop caused by massive amounts of methane and carbon dioxide released from decaying microorganisms in permafrost will exacerbate the anticipated effects from climate change.

"People walk on dirt and don't know how important it is," she added, describing how climate change effects will manifest not just in permafrost but in soil and microbial communities throughout our ecosystems. So while we won't get vampires out of a melting Arctic, the real-world consequences could be even more calamitous.

Netflix's 'V Wars' Vampires Are Less Scary Than the Real Dangers From Microorganisms in Melting Arctic Ice | Newsgeek