Over 15 years, researchers have identified two new channels linking the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean between Russia and Alaska. The animals that live there interact for the first time, creating a reservoir of the deadly pathogen Focin chum virus.
The virus, also called PDV, was first identified in European port seals, killing thousands in 1988 and again in 2002. It reappeared in 2004, but this time in northern Alaska sea otters.
It was surprising that the disease jumped to a different species in a different ocean, says study author Tracy Goldstein, associate director of One Health Institute at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. This is what led scientists to believe that melting ice was to blame for the spread of the infection.
"Animal health and human health and environmental health are so related, if one gets worse, then the others," she told CNN.
The infection peaked when the ice was at its lowest [1
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Widespread exposure reached a maximum of twice in 2003 and 2009. Both outbreaks were preceded by record low sea ice, says Goldstein.
Ice is essential for marine mammals, she said. They multiply there, rest and give birth. As water temperatures warm, their food probably travels deeper into the ocean, so animals travel further to catch them, spreading the pathogen into large streams from the northern seas.
Animals cannot keep up with the speed of fast-changing environments, says Goldstein, which makes them more susceptible to disease.
VAT has already affected people
But people who rely on animals are already indirectly affected. It is harder for Alaskans to hunt and maintain their livelihoods as seals and fish move farther from shore, she said.
Because the Arctic is so remote, it's difficult to know how many species have died from the virus since the study began, she said. Some, especially European port seals, are more vulnerable than others – up to 50% of the population of port seals died in the first two outbreaks, she said.
Eliminating the virus may not be possible, but people can at least stop it from spreading, Goldstein said. Reducing the global carbon footprint can slow down the effects of climate change and give animals a chance to catch up and adapt.