Melting Permafrost Reawakening Long-Forgotten Diseases

By Nick Fontaine


When we think of the effects climate change we often think of rising sea levels and worsened natural disasters. However, there is another— somewhat unexpected— consequence of climate change that seems to be right out of a science fiction story: long forgotten diseases are being awakened by melting permafrost in extreme polar climates.


In the summer of 2016, thousands of Russians in remote regions of Siberia were hospitalized with anthrax poisoning. One young boy even died from this (as did over 2000 reindeer). This was not an act of terrorism, but instead a result of rising global temperatures. The high heat thawed out permafrost, i.e. soil that has been frozen year round for centuries, in the area .The thaw released anthrax bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) that was previously immobilized in the permafrost. Anthrax is naturally present in soil and non-thaw related outbreaks are possible under normal conditions— however, climate change is threatening to increase this occurrence.


Some climate scientists are worried that further thawing will release other ancient microbes from human and other animal corpses buried in the area long ago. This may release diseases that humans as a species have not seen in centuries, and therefore do not have any immunity against. However, this is not without controversy as other researchers believe this to be a fairly rare incident, with the majority of soil and corpses not containing dangerous pathogens, pointing out the fact that many pathogens cannot survive that long in frozen conditions.

Artwork by Gracyn Mose

Thawing out long dead bacteria is not the only disease-related effect of climate change. Warming climates have lead to a wider spread of traditionally more equatorial/tropical diseases. Dengue fever and malaria are now being seen in much higher latitudes than before (Goudarzi, 2016). Permafrost thaws are also expected to release trapped methane and carbon dioxide that have been generated by microbes as well as reactivate unused viruses that may have a profound effect on the soil and ecological systems of the thawed areas (Emerson, et al., 2018).


The reemergence of long-forgotten diseases is one of the many unforeseen side effects of the way we have been treating our planet. While it is far from the most dangerous and pressing outcome of climate change, this has the possibility to be shocking enough to make some people reconsider how they stand on climate change. It is easier to believe the weather has always been how it is now because of its relatively slow rate of change. However, the idea of zombie viruses killing people after centuries of icy slumber is so eye-catching and undeniably a result of warming climates, that it just may have what it takes to convince even the staunchest climate change denier to change their ways. If we do not implement large scale changes to how basically every aspect of our lives are carried out, we are destined for a world that resembles a dystopian landscape usually reserved for paperback science fiction novels.


References:


Goudarzi, S. (2016). What Lies Beneath. Scientific American,315(5), 11-12. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1116-11


Emerson, J. B., Roux, S., Brum, J. R., Bolduc, B., Woodcroft, B. J., Jang, H. B., . . . Sullivan, M. B. (2018). Host-linked soil viral ecology along a permafrost thaw gradient. Nature Microbiology,3(8), 870-880. doi:10.1038/s41564-018-0190-y

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