Climate Change and Airborne Viruses
How was it that a woman in China, who was unaware she had the coronavirus, end up infecting 9 others out of the 82 diners at a restaurant? Virus researchers thought it was certainly odd that only a few in the room were affected, when so many others were not. The woman did not have any direct contact with the others. They were not eating with or very near to her and she hadn’t even coughed on them. As it turned out, the woman was sitting close to an an air-conditioning unit, which circulated the virus in a pattern in the restaurant. Only those sitting in the pattern were infected.
Virologists are always concerned by the potential some diseases have to become airborne. When this happens, a virus can be transmitted to others who are sitting near an infected person who is talking, sneezing, smoking, or even playing music with a wind instrument, like a flute. For this reason, these researchers are beginning to study airflow and to confer with environmentalists about the way ventilation affects the entire planet, as well as virus patterns. They have discovered that climate change and global warming may also be contributing to the spread of pathogens.
Another important finding is the discovery of invisible ecosystems in the air and, unfortunately, that climate change is also disrupting them. These air-based ecosystems of microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi, are called “air microbiomes.” They are similar to other ecosystems in our environment, like those on the ground or in bodies of water, in that they are also teeming with life and can spread across the planet. Some of the microorganisms living inside of them may have been blown off of the planet’s surface and continued to swirl around in the air, much like clouds, being carried by the wind from area to area. A growing concern is that, since climate change can affect weather and wind patterns, so too can it affect the spread of an airborne virus.
Outdoor winds can lift up dust particles from the street in front of a tall building and carry them even to the balconies of the building’s 50th floor. However, when the same thing happens inside the building, there is obviously another culprit at play—and that is an air-conditioning system. These units have been known to spread mold particles throughout a structure—and mold is produced by a living fungus. Therefore, if it can happen to mold, it can happen to an airborne virus.
Global air patterns are very complex and are affected by many variables, especially climate temperatures. For example, in the Atlantic Ocean, warmer waters between June and November fuel the development of hurricanes, large upper-atmosphere wind and rain storms, that can travel from the west coast of Africa to impact the east coast of North America. The warmer the ocean temperature is, the stronger the hurricanes and their winds will be.
On a micro-level, the same conditions can create “atmospheric mixing.” Warm temperatures and air turbulence mix microorganisms together in the air to create a phenomenon like a small tornado of microbes—one that is easily pushed from location to location. In large cities, these occur more in the daytime when the air is warmer, not just because of the Sun, but also because more people are present outside. Because of this, it is clear that global warming can increase the likelihood of our becoming exposed to more air-based pathogens, like viruses. Climate change, therefore, is not just an issue concerning planetary health, but also human health.
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