Beneath the surface of the earth, in the far north, where winters freeze the land to its bones, lies a vast field of biological landmines waiting to be triggered and release their hazardous cargo. They are remnants of bygone eras that have remained dormant for centuries – until recently, that is. It sounds like science fiction, I know. But our planet is changing, and the threats that humanity faces will begin to evolve accordingly.
Beneath the barren tundra landscapes of the Arctic lies a deep and ancient layer of frozen earth known as permafrost. It prevents plant roots from growing very deep, contains massive amounts of carbon, and makes up 24% of the land in the Northern hemisphere. Permafrost also holds the land together structurally, like freezing cement. Without it, erosion is accelerated, lakes disappear, the land deformates drastically and local plant life undergoes explosive change. It can literally be described as the foundation of life in the Arctic north.
That very foundation is thawing – in Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and Scandinavia – at an escalating rate. This presents problems that go beyond melting landscapes, widespread vanishing bodies of water, massive discharges of carbon or rapid ecosystem transformations. Because on top of all that, it turns out that permafrost also contains a deadly and altogether terrifying secret inhabitant…
This year, for the first time since 1941, Anthrax struck in Siberia. And it struck with force. In what became known as the 2016 Outbreak of “Zombie Anthrax,” 2,300 reindeer, and one human child died. Dozens were hospitalized. The deadly strain had been lying dormant in a reindeer carcass, frozen in permafrost for around 75 years. What caused this unexpected outbreak?
This summer, Siberia was hit with a bout of very strange weather. Temperatures in the Yamal tundra during summer (where this incident took place) are, on average, around 77-degrees F. This summer, however, that temperature rose to 95-degrees F. It was an unheard of heat wave that swept over the treeless landscape and sunk its sunlit teeth into the subterranean ice. The result? A deadly bacteria strain, released once again to wreak ill havoc upon the region, like a temperature sensitive biological weapon, buried by the natural course of time to punish those who set it off – us.
Ultimately, I think the Yamal natives got lucky. The loss of a child is always tragic, and 2,300 reindeer (which many natives rely upon for food) is severely inconvenient. But things could have gotten worse… And maybe they still will.
Climates don’t often change – not by human standards at least. So, as the permafrost begins to melt away season by season, year by year, decade by decade, as the ice retreats further and further towards the pole, and glaciers calve unremittingly, remnants of the long-ago will begin to emerge with greater frequency. The reindeer corpse(s) believed to have released this Siberian outbreak of Anthrax was estimated to have only been 75 years old. What happens when carcasses from thousands of years ago melt? Or those from tens-of-thousands of years ago? Who knows what kinds of deadly ancient secrets have yet to thaw.
It is possible that as the Arctic begins to warm to a deeper and more extensive degree, bacteria/viruses frozen in time might be released that humans have never before encountered. Illnesses from before our time – illnesses we have no measurable immunity to.
After the infection on the Yamal tundra, Russian government vehicles descended upon the region and men in bright yellow HAZMAT suits began roving the area disinfecting the ground and incinerating infected substances. The scene was bizarrely reminiscent of Stephen King’s “The Stand”.
The situation was contained and controlled, but the threat remains: as temperatures rise, permafrost melts opening a veritable Pandora’s box of rotting organic matter that has, until now, been preserved by the cold environment. Simultaneously, vast amounts of stored carbon are released into the atmosphere, intensifying and accelerating the effects of climate change, and increasing the amount/rate of melting permafrost. It’s a downward spiral and we’re caught in the middle of it.
There’s no telling what the loss of permafrost might expose next. On a positive side, there’s sure to be lots of prehistoric fossils and man-made artifacts that become accessible to historians and archeologists. There’s also lots of oil, which is sure to get investors feeling really frisky. But no matter how closely you stare into the silver lining, this situation is intensely treacherous. I’m not even sure that we can do anything to avoid this impending threat. Climate change is stepping into full swing, and the momentum of a planet’s climate system isn’t exactly something that can be altered on short notice.
Sources: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/07/28/anthrax-sickens-13-in-western-siberia-and-a-thawed-out-reindeer-corpse-may-be-to-blame/, https://news.vice.com/article/reindeer-dead-humans-hospitalized-anthrax-outbreak-russia-siberia, http://siberiantimes.com/science/opinion/features/f0249-experts-warn-of-threat-of-born-again-smallpox-from-old-siberian-graveyards/, http://scitech.quickfound.net/, https://www.wunderground.com/climate/permafrost.asp?MR=1, https://www.rt.com/viral/354647-permafrost-thaw-virus-sinkholes/