In August 2016, in a remote corner of Siberian tundra in the Arctic Circle, a 12-year-old boy died, at least 20 people were hospitalised, and 90 people underwent hospital checks after being infected by anthrax (BBC News, 2016). Russia sent troops trained for biological warfare to help deal with the emergency and families nearby were evacuated to a campsite about 60km from the infection hotspot.
This strange turn of events was possibly catalysed by climate change.
The theory is that, over 75 years ago, a reindeer infected with anthrax died and its frozen carcass became trapped under a layer of frozen soil known as permafrost. There it stayed until the permafrost thawed in the summer of 2016. This exposed the reindeer corpse and released infectious anthrax into nearby water and soil, and then into the food supply. More than 2,300 reindeer grazing nearby became infected and died, which then led to the small number of human cases (Fox-Skelly, 2017).
This is now our unsettling reality: climate change is releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that have lain dormant in the permafrost soil for centuries.
But this is a pretty recent field of proper scientific research, and the wider scientific community still doesn’t know a whole lot about this subject.
In November 2019 in Hannover, Germany, scientists from around the world covering many fields of study – climatology, geology, virology – met for the first major skillshare focusing on the threat of microbes revived by the thawing of the permafrost (Boren, 2020).
So for now, we should not worry too much about this phenomenon. It is not quantifiably known whether further warming of the permafrost will lead to the release of viable anthrax organisms or other infectious diseases. But researchers still suggest that it would be prudent to undertake careful monitoring of permafrost conditions in all areas where anthrax outbreaks have occurred in the past (Revich and Podolnaya, 2011).
BBC News, 2016. Russia anthrax outbreak affects dozens in north Siberia. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36951542
Boren, Z., 2020. The permafrost pandemic: could the melting Arctic release a deadly disease?. [Online] Available at: https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2020/07/03/arctic-permafrost-pandemic-life-uh-finds-a-way/
Fox-Skelly, J., 2017. There are diseases hidden in the ice, and they are waking up. [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up
Revich, B. A. & Podolnaya, M. A., 2011. Thawing of permafrost may disturb historic cattle burial grounds in East Siberia. Global Health Action, 21 November.4(1).