We’re waking up Death!

Rise of temperatures in Siberia and North America are causing the melting of frozen ground, the Permafrost, and releases long forgotten or unknown infectious microbes threatening our health: Plague, Anthrax, Smallpox, Spanish Flu…

During a summer heatwave in August 2016, anthrax killed a 12-year-old boy in a remote part of Siberia1. At least 20 other people were diagnosed with the potentially deadly disease, and more than 2,300 reindeer in the area also died from the infection. The reason was obvious but startling. An infected reindeer had lain frozen in the permafrost for over 75 years. But this frost had melted; releasing spores of Bacillus anthracis into nearby soil and water – and then into the food supply. The outbreak was the region’s first in 75 years.

For years, researchers have predicted that one of the effects of global warming could be that whatever was previously trapped within the permafrost might be released as temperatures climb2. This includes devastating infectious agents humans might not be ready for or immune to, like the Black Plague, Anthrax, Smallpox, Spanish Flu. And that’s just the ones we know of! We have no records of the diseases that may have plagued our ancient ancestors.

Now that theory is turning into reality. Infectious microorganisms are emerging from the deep freeze, and it’s happening fast. According to researchers from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and the Alfred Wegener Institute of Potsdam, the permafrost is already thawing at rates not expected until 20903. Parts of the permafrost that have been frozen for thousands of years are now melting quickly, releasing infectious disease and a hefty amount of Greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere. The later is known to be one of the major tipping points in climate change.

The message is clear: we must act now to avoid the worse!

References

  1. 2 Aug 2016, Russia anthrax outbreak affects dozens in north Siberia, BBC News. ↩︎

  2. Goudarzi, 1 Nov. 2016, As Earth Warms, the Diseases That May Lie within Permafrost Become a Bigger Worry, Scientific American 315(5):11-12. ↩︎

  3. Farquharson et al., 2019, Climate Change Drives Widespread and Rapid Thermokarst Development in Very Cold Permafrost in the Canadian High Arctic, Geophysical Research Letters 46(12):6681-6689. ↩︎