5 diseases climate change may awaken from melted permafrost

Each layer that melts exposes germs dating back thousands of years

Published November 11, 2017 12:30PM (EST)

 (Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


If you are lacking in thoughts to keep you up at night, may I submit for your consideration the melting of the Arctic permafrost. The frozen subterranean soil in the Earth's polar regions accounts for about 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere. Climate change, that great consequence of human arrogance, industry and tendency toward destruction, is causing that ice to melt at rates previously unseen. Studies show the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and a 2017 report from the Arctic Council suggests 20 percent of the uppermost layers of permafrost may melt by 2040. As the ice begins to thaw, each eroding layer will expose new layers, along with microbes that have been frozen away for thousands of years. That vast collection of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens may impact — or infect — our lives in ways that are best not to consider just before bed.

Here are five scary diseases climate change may expose to humanity.

1. Anthrax.

In 2016, an anthrax outbreak in Siberia killed a 12-year-old boy and more than 2,300 reindeer. More than 70 nomadic herders, among them over 40 children, were hospitalized during the health crisis, and at least seven other adults and children were diagnosed with the disease. The culprit? The carcass of an anthrax-infected reindeer who died of the infection way back in 1941.

A Siberian heat wave sent temperatures soaring as high as 95 degrees Fahrenheit—exceptionally hot for the area — melting the permafrost that encased the corpse for decades and exposing spores of Bacillus anthracis into water, soil and ultimately, food supplies. The Guardian notes that “Thawing permafrost has also led to greater erosion of river banks where nomads often buried their dead” in shallow graves, because of the difficulty of digging deep beneath the ice.

“We literally fought for the life of each person, but the infection showed its cunning,” Dmitry Kobylkin, a governor in the region, told a local news outlet. “It returned after 75 years and took the life of a child.”

2. Previously unknown viruses.

Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel are microbiology professors who study viruses that attack amoebae. In a 30,000-year-old sample of Siberian permafrost, the scientists discovered two “giant viruses” — so named because of their comparatively enormous size to other viruses — Pithovirus sibericum andMollivirus sibericumcan. (The former, according to the World Economic Forum, is “more than 10 times larger than the HIV virus.”) Both viruses were still infectious. Though only amoebae are susceptible to the viruses, their discovery holds troubling implications for other contagions.

“We tried to isolate amoeba viruses without knowing they were going to be giant viruses — and a totally different type of virus than we already know appeared,” Claverie told the Atlantic. “It turns out the viruses we are getting [in the permafrost] are extremely abnormal, extremely fancy.”

“[T]he thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health,” the couple wrote in a study.

3. Diseases that had been previously eradicated.

Putting aside long-dormant new (or new to us) viruses, there’s also the issue of “zombie diseases” that have been safely tucked away in the ice for tens of thousands of years. These could very well include infections that have wreaked havoc on human populations in previous eras, including smallpox, various flu varieties, bubonic plague, and other deadly illnesses long since forgotten. Other infections that didn’t kill previous generations, but which we’ve lost immunity protection for, could also emerge.

In a 2011 paper foreshadowing the Siberian anthrax outbreak last year, researchers Boris A. Revich and Marina A. Podolnaya warned that “[a]s a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”

4. Whatever killed our now-extinct human ancestors.

“No one really understands why Neanderthals went extinct,” Jean-Michel Claverie told the Atlantic. In an interview with Vox, he explained, “We could actually catch a disease from a Neanderthal’s remains. Which is amazing.”

A BBC article notes that melting permafrost could potentially yield “viruses from long-extinct hominin species like Neanderthals and Denisovans, both of which settled in Siberia and were riddled with various viral diseases. Remains of Neanderthals from 30-40,000 years ago have been spotted in Russia. Human populations have lived there, sickened and died for thousands of years.”

5. Any of the scary things on this list.

Okay, not to be alarmist but oh my god someone sound the alarm, a lot of really frightening stuff might surface as warming continues and the ice exposes layers frozen to time. The BBC catalogs a few terrifying examples.

Scientists from the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk examined the corpse of a Stone Age man in the Siberian region of Gorny Altai, and other men who died in 19th century viral epidemics “and were buried in the permafrost region of Russia.” The BBC notes “they have found bodies with sores characteristic of the marks left by smallpox. While they did not find the smallpox virus itself, they have detected fragments of its DNA.”

The BBC story points out that “fragments of RNA from the 1918 Spanish flu virus” have been discovered by scientists “in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska's tundra. Smallpox and the bubonic plague are also likely buried in Siberia.”

A bacterium that had been encased in an Antarctic glacier for 8 million years was successfully revived by a team of scientists laboring under the mistaken impression that we’re all hoping to star in a real-life version of "Stranger Things."

And in perhaps my favorite example of all, a group of NASA scientists revived bacteria dating back to the Pleistocene period. These Carnobacterium pleistocenium shared the era with mastodons, woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats. Though the microbes had been immobilized in a chunk of ice for 32,000 years, they were in fine form after things warmed up.

“Once the ice melted,” according to the BBC “they began swimming around, seemingly unaffected.”

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

By Kali Holloway

Kali Holloway is the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She co-curated the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MetLiveArts 2017 summer performance and film series, “Theater of the Resist.” She previously worked on the HBO documentary Southern Rites, PBS documentary The New Public and Emmy-nominated film Brooklyn Castle, and Outreach Consultant on the award-winning documentary The New Black. Her writing has appeared in AlterNet, Salon, the Guardian, TIME, the Huffington Post, the National Memo, and numerous other outlets.

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Alternet Climate Change Diseases Global Warming Health Permafrost Science