As the sea ice melts in Antarctica and Greenland, new microbes are being released. ©Colin McNulty

Antibacterial soaps, alcohol wipes and bleach in our everyday cleaning products have made us focused on eliminating all the germs that we possibly can from our lives. And when it comes to our children, it seems that focus turns into an obsession.

It’s here, though, where we soon become at odds with nature. After all, it’s only natural that children will want to explore their environments and get their hands in the dirt. It turns out that the kids are probably doing what’s best. Scientists have recently reported that our modern obsession with cleanliness might be leading to a rise in allergies, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. Getting dirty could just be the best path to developing a strong immune system.

That type of strength may soon be needed. As sea ice continues to melt in Antarctica and Greenland, new microbes—the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in millennia—are being released. Are we inadvertently setting ourselves up for new epidemics?

Once thought to be too harsh and inhospitable to support life, ice sheets are now known to be reservoirs of microbial life. ©Colin McNulty

New life for some old creatures

According to an article published in Scientific American magazine in April, locked away in the ice in Antarctica and Greenland is a world of ancient creatures—confined, that is, until recently when climate change has caused massive areas of sea ice to melt. The ice sheets on these two continents contain tiny organisms that may have been trapped there longer than modern humans have walked the Earth, waiting for the right conditions to set them free again.

That freedom is coming. Even now, there is a five-story, blood-red waterfall pouring slowly from Taylor Glacier in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys. About two million years ago, a small body of water that contained an ancient community of microbes was trapped below the glacier’s thick ice. The encased lake is rich in iron, which gives the waterfall its red color. Isolated inside this natural time capsule, microbes have been evolving independently of the rest of the living world, existing without heat, light or oxygen. According to scientists, this “primordial ooze” is being reintroduced into the modern world. Similar scenarios are taking place in Greenland.

Once thought to be too harsh and inhospitable to support any living thing, the ice sheets are now known to be gigantic reservoirs of microbial life—life that hasn’t been around since the Middle Pleistocene, a previous period of major climate change about 750,000 years ago. Estimates are that the biomass of microbial cells in and beneath the ice sheets may amount to more than a thousand times the number of people on Earth. And these microbes are about to make their way back into the environment en masse.

It’s easy to image a future where our megafauna gets smaller or disappears altogether. ©Patrick J. Endres

A “quick and dirty” summary

If we use our imaginations, it’s possible to see a future world where our megafauna gets smaller or disappears altogether, while tinier forms of life multiply. And if we humans mange to continue to exist, we won’t be living with bears or lions so much as with bacteria.

Which brings me back to getting dirty. Perhaps we should let our exploring youngsters get grimy. It will prepare future generations for that world of ooze they may someday live in.

For us adults, however, “getting dirty” in our explorations and adventure travels, of course, has always been a metaphor. There are voluntourism trips where you can “get dirty with a purpose.” Then there are the “quick and dirty” tours, which means that you will get into and out of a place fast. There’s even the “down and dirty” adventures, where you get earthy, meet with the locals, let the typical tenets of travel go by the wayside and have an intense experience.


Embrace dirty. Getting a little dirty in a place might mean that you have truly traveled through it.

I was once in the company of a guide who said that if you get tired, hungry and dirty on a trip, you know you didn’t just visit a place. You’ve truly traveled through it.

Ever since then, I’ve looked for those places or opportunities to get dirty—at least once—on every adventure.

Do you think we’re overly cautious about getting dirty or want too much luxury on our adventure trips? Have you ever gone on an adventure that allowed you to get “get down in the dirt,” so to speak?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,