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The X-Files | ‘Ice’ in Reality: Scientific Secrets Beneath the Permafrost

The X-Files episode ‘Ice’ riffs on The Thing as primordial terrors thaw. In reality, science is making deadly discoveries of its own...

Warning: This article contains spoilers for The X-Files episode ‘Ice’ (S1, Ep8). Proceed with caution.

Although the worm-like creature in The X-Files episode ‘Ice’ (S1, Ep8) seems to be of extraterrestrial origin, the organisms and long-forgotten artifacts revealed by melting glaciers and permafrost give us a glance into life on earth thousands of years ago. However, it also holds dangers that we don’t yet fully understand.

In this article, I’m going to look at the real work that is currently being undertaken – especially in the Arctic – the finds that are being made, and what the future may hold if some of these dormant organisms do wake up.

Summary of The X-Files Episode ‘Ice’

When a mass murder-suicide takes place at an outpost in Icy Cape, Alaska, among a group of geophysicists, Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), along with other experts are sent to investigate what had happened.

When the group reaches the research outpost, a dog is still alive and attacks Mulder and the pilot that brought them to the outpost. The pilot is bitten by the dog. Scully notices that the dog has black nodules on its skin and suspects an infection of bubonic plague. The pilot also develops these nodules, but no such marks are on the bodies of the dead scientists.

Mulder and Scully are wearing cold-weathered gear and are looking at someone off-camera in The X-Files episode 'Ice'.
Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) in The X-Files episode ‘Ice’ (S1, Ep8). Production designer Graeme Murray had worked on John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), adding to the similarities. | 20th Century Fox, 1993.

One of the experts, a geologist, finds an ice core taken from a meteor crater. This ice core is theorized to be some 250,000 years old. The pilot falls ill and dies when one of the experts makes an incision to remove something that they see move under his skin. It turns out to be a small worm-like creature. Mulder is convinced that the worms are extraterrestrial and wants to keep them alive although Scully disagrees as she wants to keep the infection from spreading.

When Mulder is found standing over the geologist’s corpse, the others suspect that he has become infected and has murdered the geologist. To keep him apart from the rest of the group, he is placed in a storeroom.

An alien worm floats in a glass beaker in The X-Files episode 'Ice'.
An alien worm in The X-Files episode ‘Ice’ (S1, Ep8). The worms in jars were entirely digital, whilst the effect of them writhing beneath the skin of their victims was achieved by pulling on wires beneath fake skin. | 20th Century Fox, 1993.

The worms, Scully finds, will kill each other when placed in the same host environment – and they test this by putting a worm into the infected dog, which recovers. Two of the experts try to put the other worm into Mulder (after locking Scully away), but, just in time, movement is spotted beneath the flesh of one of the experts and they realize that Mulder isn’t infected. They manage to restrain the infected expert and place the remaining worm in her.

The group is finally able to be flown out of the area and, when Mulder says that he wants to return to the site, he is told that the whole outpost was destroyed by the government.

The Current State of Melting Arctic Ice and Permafrost

Permafrost – a layer of frozen soil – covers 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere (see Resnick, 2019), and, because of climate change, this permafrost is starting to melt. In fact, recent studies suggest that the poles are warming four times faster than the rest of the globe and that current thaw levels weren’t forecast to happen until 2050 (see Post, 2019).

Yet this isn’t just a simple matter of soil thawing; as microbes, carbon, and even mercury are locked inside the frozen soil. When it thaws, these greenhouse gases, microbes, and heavy metals are set free into the atmosphere and the surrounding environment, contaminating it.

The retreating and melting ice in the north of Canada and elsewhere are giving us a glimpse of centuries and even millennia past – a strange positive outcome of the thaw.

A woolly mammoth skeleton on display alongside an array of other skeletons and skulls reflecting some of the animals alive during the Ice Age.
This composite skeleton of a woolly mammoth (meaning it is made up of the bones of a number of different individual mammoths) was recovered in Alaska in 1952 and is on display in the Ice Age Hall of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. | Public Domain/CC0.

Animals in the Ice

Many animals and animal bones have been found in the melting ice and permafrost – with many being nearly perfectly preserved by the icy climate. But it’s not only hair and skin that are perfectly preserved but also DNA. Thanks to preserved DNA, “genes can be easily extracted from bones and soft tissue” (Lallensack, 2022). Lallensack also notes in the same Smithsonian Magazine article that “scientists have even found intact genetic material in soil samples.”

In the Yukon Permafrost in Canada, giant animals – or megafauna – from the last Ice Age, when most of North America was covered in glaciers – have been preserved in such a way that scientists can tell how they lived and died. Lallensack (2022) notes that these finds are a veritable gold rush for paleontologists who are working against time and heat to save as much as possible before the remains are left to the forgotten history of a long-lost world.

Zhùr the Wolf Pup

Some finds are exceedingly well-preserved, for example, a wolf pup (Canis lupus) called Zhùr (which means “wolf” in Hän, the language of the First Nations people of Yukon and Alaska), who is basically only missing her eyes. Most likely killed in a den collapse, she was found in 2016 by a gold miner.

So well-preserved is this wolf pup, that genetic data could be used to discern that her distant relatives are in Eurasia and Alaska, but not in Yukon. This “means that Zhùr’s population was eventually wiped out and replaced by another,” the Smithsonian Magazine article notes. Thanks to tissue preservation, much can be constructed about how wolves lived during this time as even their diet can be identified.

A mummified wolf pup.
Incredible series of image of the wolf pup Zhùr, who was discovered preserved in the permafrost in Yukon by a miner. It is the best preserved and most complete remains of an Ice Age wolf ever found. | © Government of Yukon 2020

New Evidence About Camels and Llamas

Bones from the Camelops hersternus (“Yesterday’s camels”), or the western camel, which were found in melting permafrost actually rearranged what was known of and speculated about the Camelidae family tree. The camel bones were found in 2008 by miners and were dated back 75,000 to 125,000 years. Because the icy conditions preserved the bones so well, researchers have managed to extract DNA from them.

The bones provided “concrete evidence that the animals were closely related to modern camels instead of llamas” Lallensack (2022) notes. (See also this 2015 study in Molecular Biology and Evolution.) This is to say that the Camelidae originated in North America and then split into camels and llamas. The modern-day camels’ forerunners migrated across the Bering Land Bridge, while predecessors of llamas and alpacas migrated to South America.

The western camels may have gone extinct some 10,000 years ago, but their wide-ranging territory – as far south as Honduras and as far north as the Yukon – and the new avenues their DNA is opening up just goes to show how much there still is to learn about the wildlife of the past.

Bones, Teeth, and Skulls

Not all finds are as well-preserved as Zhür and the mammoth calf, but even just bones can help researchers understand a lot more about the fauna of the past. The skull of a giant beaver (Castoroides ohiensis), for example, looks as fierce as a saber-tooth tiger because of its six-inch incisors.

At about the size of a modern black bear, this enormous rodent did not build dams like modern beavers and lived on a diet of aquatic plants. They also went extinct some 10,000 years ago when the climate changed.

A large, dark brown Giant Beaver skull pictured alongside a much smaller modern beaver skull.
The skull of a modern beaver alongside the skull of a giant beaver. The first giant beaver fossil collected, this skull was found in 1845 in central New York. | New York State Museum

Human Artefacts

It’s not just animals that are found in the retreating and melting ice, but also human artifacts, settlements, and even the remains of humans who have been preserved in the ice over the centuries. Projects like the Secrets of the Ice Project, which have been scouring Norway’s highest mountains since 2011 for archaeological finds, have recovered thousands of artifacts that give an insight into earlier societies and the history of mountain populations.

The freezing temperatures locking the artifacts in ice have also kept many of the fragile items from being destroyed over time. This means that organic materials are also found, including clothing and fabric, leather items like shoes, wooden skis as well as weapons from as far back as the Bronze Age (see also Daley’s 2018 article). Among the weapons are arrows with the shaft intact – organic matter that can quickly disintegrate once the ice concealing it melts. However, it’s not only these large finds that are important but also the microbes and other organisms that will have an impact on the climate and human civilization going forward.

Microbes and Other Organisms

The retreating ice and melting permafrost are exposing organic matter that hasn’t been exposed to the air and sun in some 45,000 years or even longer. This matter contains microbes as well – and they’re beginning to wake up. These microbes are “releasing equally ancient CO2, and could potentially come to infect humans with deadly diseases” (Resnick, 2019).

Jean-Michel Claverie, a genomics researcher that was part of the team that determined a 30,000-year-old virus that had been trapped in the permafrost could be revived, notes that permafrost could preserve bacteria and viruses for hundreds of thousands of years (Resnick, 2019). Noting that permafrost can be up to 1,000 meters deep, it would mean that some of the permafrost can be up to 1.5 million years old.

Illnesses and infections, including flu viruses, smallpox, or others we don’t know of yet, could be released as the permafrost thaws. The microbes that scientists do know include Methanogenic Archaea, which releases methane – a potent greenhouse gas. Coupled with the methanotrophs that consume methane, the balance of these microbes will help in determining the future of climate warming (see Miner, 2020).

Resnick notes that the threat from these viruses and bacteria is tiny, but that the threat does exist. And, Claverie notes, “we could actually catch a disease from a Neanderthal’s remains… which is amazing.” (Resnick, 2019)

Bear is held down on a counter, his hair over his face, whilst a bloody worm is pulled from his neck with forceps in The X-Files episode 'Ice'.
A worm is removed from the expedition’s pilot Bear (Jeff Kober) in The X-Files episode ‘Ice’ (S1, Ep8). Kober has had a number of genre roles, but few weirder than the human-kangaroo hybrid Booga in Tank Girl (1995). | 20th Century Fox, 1993.

Illnesses in the Ice: Alaskapox

In the area of Fairbanks, Alaska, some cases of the so-called “Alaskapox” have been identified since 2015. This previously unidentified virus, which had individuals show symptoms of pox marks, swollen lymph nodes, joint pain, and fatigue is akin to cowpox and smallpox. However, recovery in each instance was complete.

Just like cowpox made its way to humans via cats, so too do researchers think that Alaskapox may have made the jump from voles in the Fairbanks area to humans via pet cats that catch these small rodents. Direct exposure to infected voles may also cause a person to catch Alaskapox.

Recent Anthrax Outbreaks

Various anthrax outbreaks in Siberia have claimed the lives of people, have infected scores, and have led to the culling of vast amounts of reindeer. Because the spores of Siberian Anthrax remain viable in permafrost for approximately 105 years (Revich et al, 2011), rising temperatures and thawing permafrost can have disastrous effects on the people and animals – especially those living near cattle burial grounds.

In 2016 unusually warm weather, which reached 95°F triggered the release of anthrax from the permafrost in Salekhard, in the Arctic Circle. A boy of 12 lost his life to anthrax infection, and 72 others – all nomadic herders – were hospitalized in Salekhard. Thousands of reindeer also died from anthrax that was released from the permafrost. This is only one of the various recent outbreaks.

Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) check one another for signs of infection in The X-Files episode ‘Ice’ (S1, Ep8). | 20th Century Fox, 1993.

Called the “Siberian plague” in Russian, the disease was last seen in this region in 1941 (see Luhn, 2016). The disease can survive in both infected human and animal remains. Luhn notes that “thawing permafrost has also led to greater erosion of river banks where nomads often buried their dead.” Because of the frozen ground, the graves are not dug very deep, making it easier for the disease to reach the surface once the soil thaws.

Although we may not be facing extraterrestrial worm-like creatures that have survived being encased in ice for millennia, we are still facing a lot of novel problems and obstacles that stem from the thawing of the poles. Perhaps science fiction will prove to be a bit close to home once again as the thawing continues.

This article was first published on August 3rd, 2022, on the original Companion website.

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