Environmental Exclusive Research Package

Climate Change & Zombie Viruses for NYC

While warming and increasingly acidic ocean water will provide existing pathogens a greater foothold in New York City over time, another relevant consideration is the emergence of ‘zombie viruses.’

New York City is a low-lying coastal city. The realities of its setting in the landscape make the city and health of its residents sensitive to both rising tides and the effects of deteriorating marine ecological health. In other words, the issue of sea level rise is just as much about the health of adjacent bodies of water as the elevations of their tides will have large public health ramifications for city residents. [1]

An often overlooked repercussion of the climate crisis is the proliferation of tropical diseases in coastal North American cities currently understood to be temperate. [2] As the ocean water becomes warmer and more acidic it will be increasingly hospitable to bacteria with wide ranging repercussions for human health.[3] The range of Vibrio bacteria, most commonly associated with seafood borne illness and caustic reactions to skin contact with open water, find those conditions especially hospitable. [4] Rising tides, warming temperatures and the increased presence of standing water in urban areas with poor drainage will also make a cityscape like New York hospitable to mosquitos. [5] In Lancet’s most recent Countdown on Health and Climate Change in the United States of American they list the recent and expected proliferation of Vibrio as a critical insight that should guide immediate policy directives to mitigate effects of the changing climate. [6] While warming and increasingly acidic ocean water will provide existing pathogens a greater foothold in New York City over time, another relevant consideration is the emergence of ‘zombie viruses.’ [7] These are historic, sometimes ancient viruses (for which there is no longer any immunity) that have been held in suspended animation in glaciers and permafrost. [8] Once thawed, viruses like anthrax emerge at their full potency and pose risks to local populations. [9] Moreover, ‘zombie viruses’ can be spread globally by migrating birds and people who will increasingly move through newly available shipping routes (made passable by disappearing ice) and carry them back to ports of call. [10] As a coastal, low lying, densely populated urban environment with active ports New York City will be especially vulnerable to the expected increase in existing and resurrected pathogens. In New York City sea level rise and extreme tidal surges will be exponentially more dangerous due to the lack of adequate drainage which will yield pools of stagnant water throughout the five boroughs. The combination of standing water and warming temperatures will create the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Increasingly, North American mosquitoes will be vectors for tropical diseases usually associated with more southern latitudes like: West Nile virus, malaria and dengue fever. [11]

When most people close their eyes and imagine the effects of climate change on the future of New York City they envision warmer temperature and rising water levels. Rarely do they consider the manifestations of the ancillary effects of these intersecting realities. In other words, it isn’t just the presence of water in the urban environment but the health of that water that will have large public health ramifications for city residents. As the water becomes warmer and more acidic it will be increasingly hospitable to viruses and harmful algal blooms (HAB). Water born pestilence includes a range of Vibrio bacteria that can cause a wide range of health problems like: rashes, nausea, paralysis, amnesia and Cholera. These viruses can be transmitted to humans from physical contact or ingestion of shellfish that have been exposed to it. The HAB would choke out other aquatic species, effect human health and local economies. 

Another consideration are so called “zombie viruses.” The issue of so-called ‘zombie viruses’ may sound like something from a John Carpenter movie, but ancient viruses for which there are no contemporary immunities could be exposed to the open air as glaciers and permafrost melt.

These are viruses that existed hundreds, thousands or millions of years ago that have vanished globally except for glaciers and permafrost where they have been held in a kind of suspended animation.[12] Viruses it turns out, can survival being frozen indefinitely.  For example, in 1951 researchers revived the influenza of 1918 that had been trapped in the ice. [13]  That is a highly contagious disease for which there is no longer any immunity.  If revealed to the open air by melting ice viruses like old strains of influenza or anthrax will emerge unaffected and present high risks of local contamination. Viral happenings in the arctic might seem worlds away from Manhattan but migrating birds could easily carry emergent viruses south to North America. [14] In 2015 researchers discovered 28 new virus groups for which there is no immunity or known medications. That said, the rashes, nausea, diarrhea, paralysis and death from contaminated shellfish or infected mosquitos are more likely to have a more immediate effect on New York City then any zombie viruses. 


[1] Craig, R. K. (2019). Warming Oceans, Coastal Diseases, and Climate Change Public Health Adaptation. Retrieved June 22, 2020, from https://dc.law.utah.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1174&context=scholarship

[2] “Climate Change and Infectious Disease in North America : The Road Ahead.” Amy Greer, Victoria Ng & David Fisman. March 11, 2008. Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) https://www.cmaj.ca/content/178/6/715

[3] Craig, R. K. (2019). Warming Oceans, Coastal Diseases, and Climate Change Public Health Adaptation. Retrieved June 22, 2020 (P 5). https://dc.law.utah.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1174&context=scholarship

[4] “Non-Cholera Vibrios: The Microbial Barometer of Climate Change.” Craig Baker-Austin, Joaquin Trinanes, Narjol Gonzalel-Escalona, Jaime Martinez-Urtaza. Trends in Microbiology Volume 25, Ussie 1, January 2017. Pages 76-84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tim.2016.09.008

[5] “Climate Change Pushing Tropical Diseases Toward the Arctic.” Craig Welch. National Geographic June 14, 2017 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/06/vibrio-zika-west-nile-malaria-diseases-spreading-climate-change/#close

[6] Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Policy Brief for the United States of America. December 2, 2020. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)32290-X. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32290-X/fulltext

[7] Craig, R. K. (2019). Warming Oceans, Coastal Diseases, and Climate Change Public Health Adaptation. Retrieved June 22, 2020. (P 27). https://dc.law.utah.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1174&context=scholarship

[8] “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change.” November 6, 2017. Robinson Meyer. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/11/the-zombie-diseases-of-climate-change/544274/

[9] “There are Diseases Hidden in the Ice and they are Waking Up.” Jasmine Fox-Skelly. May 4,2017.  BBC – Earth – There are diseases hidden in ice, and they are waking up

[10] Craig, R. K. (2019). Warming Oceans, Coastal Diseases, and Climate Change Public Health Adaptation. Retrieved June 22, 2020, (p 23). https://dc.law.utah.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1174&context=scholarship

[11] U.S. Faces a Rise in Mosquito “ Disease Danger Days.” Climate Central. August 8, 2018. http://assets.climatecentral.org/pdfs/August2018_CMN_Mosquitoes.pdf?pdf=Mosquito

[12] “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change,” Robinson Meyer. The Atlantic November 6, 2017. <https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/11/the-zombie-diseases-of-climate-change/544274/&gt;

13  The Deadliest Flu: The Complete Story of the Discovery and Reconstruction of the 1918 Pandemic Virus. Douglas Jordan with Contributions from Dr. Terrence Tumpey and Barbara Jester. December 17, 2019. CDC><https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/reconstruction-1918-virus.html#reconstruction&gt;

[14] Craig, R. K. (2019). Warming Oceans, Coastal Diseases, and Climate Change Public Health Adaptation. Retrieved June 22, 2020, from https://dc.law.utah.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1174&context=scholarship

This research article is one in a series undertaken by Unbuilt Labs in support of the graphic novel Post York written and drawn by James Romberger, with creative insights and music from Crosby, aka ClockWork Cros. The experimental comic is published by Berger Books at Dark Horse Comics

Image from Post York by James Romberger