Human-caused climate change has vastly transformed the forests of southern China and Southeast Asia, resulting in an explosion of new potentially virus-carrying bat species in the region, according to a new study that was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
The research provides the first evidence of a mechanism by which climate change could have played a direct role in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that caused the yearlong coronavirus pandemic.
According to the study’s findings, changes in vegetation due to warmer temperatures over the past century have prompted an additional forty bat species to move into the region, carrying with them a hundred more types of bat-borne coronaviruses. Currently, the world’s bat population carries roughly three thousand different types of coronavirus, with each bat species possessing an average of 2.7 coronaviruses—most without exhibiting any symptoms.
Many scientists worldwide have contended that the novel coronavirus that started the pandemic in late 2019 originated in bats in southern China’s Yunnan Province or neighboring areas before it entered the human population. The findings have made the researchers more concerned about the probability that climate change will make future pandemics more likely.
“Climate change over the last century has made the habitat in the southern Chinese Yunnan Province suitable for more bat species,” Dr. Robert Beyer, lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement.
“Understanding how the global distribution of bat species has shifted as a result of climate change may be an important step in reconstructing the origin of the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Beyer and his colleagues urged policymakers to acknowledge the role of climate change in outbreaks of viral diseases across the world.
“Governments must seize the opportunity to reduce health risks from infectious diseases by taking decisive action to mitigate climate change.”
In another recent study that was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers acknowledged that stringent lockdowns and reduced societal activity related to the pandemic have made Earth’s air cleaner—but they have also slightly warmed the planet.
According to the data, temperatures in some regions in the eastern United States, Russia, and China were as much as half to two-thirds of a degree warmer for a short period of time. That was mainly due to less soot and sulfate particles from automobile exhaust and burning coal, which are known to cool the atmosphere temporarily by reflecting the sun’s heat.
“The COVID-19 pandemic changed emissions of gases and particulates,” the researchers wrote. “These gases and particulates affect climate. In general, human emissions of particles cool the planet by scattering away sunlight in the clear sky and by making clouds brighter to reflect sunlight away from the Earth.”
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.