The impact of global warming – now widely acknowledged and referred to as “Climate Change” – can be seen and felt everywhere on earth. From extreme weather events to rising sea levels, the issue has become very real and several nations around the world have made pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
The most dramatic of these impacts can be witnessed in the Arctic. Warming at twice the rate of the global average, the Arctic Sea ice is shrinking annually and the Greenland Ice Sheet has become unstable. Perhaps one of the most disturbing changes in the area is occurring underground in the permafrost, a frozen layer of soil that covers more than 25% of the Northern Hemisphere. Slowly thawing since the 1980s, long-dormant microbes, infectious agents, ancient viruses and spores are now waking up, ending up in nearby water, soil and food supplies.
In the early 20th Century, more than a million reindeer succumbed to the “Siberian Plague,” known as Anthrax in the Western World. In Eastern Siberia alone, there are an estimated 285 reindeer burial grounds of which the exact locations of only 77 are known. According to some researchers the arctic permafrost – the perfect preserver for microbes and viruses due to its cold, dark and oxygen-free conditions – contains up to 1.5 million anthrax infested reindeer carcasses, the spores of which can survive for more than 100 years.
In 2016 an outbreak occurred after a 75-year-old reindeer carcass thawed, releasing infectious spores into the nearby water, soil and food supply. More than two 300 reindeer died and 72 herders, including 41 children had to be hospitalized. One 12-year-old boy lost his life. Scientists fear that this may not be an isolated case.
9. Bubonic Plague
Anthrax is not the only danger lurking in the permafrost. A 2011 study also detected the DNA sequence of bubonic plague, a disease which killed more than 20 million people during the Middle Ages, in the region. Giving rise to fears that virulent germs from the 18th and 19th Centuries, released from melting permafrost may return, especially in areas where victims of these infections were buried.
Outbreaks of the highly contagious bubonic plague still sporadically occur in 35 countries worldwide and cases are on the rise. In Mongolia, at least one person dies from the plague every year, while a 10-year-old boy caught the bubonic plague in 2016 while hunting with his grandfather in Siberia’s Altai Mountains. Vaccines for more than 15,000 people were flown to the area and quarantines were put in place to curb further outbreaks. Although scientists agree that the relationship between the plague and climate change is still not fully understood, its rise may be attributed to the fact that the plague bacterium survives and multiplies in microbes in soil and water (and melting permafrost = slushy mud). When rodents settle, dig or dwell in the soil it encounters the bacterium and then spreads it via fleas.
8. Spanish Flu
The Spanish flu killed approximately 50 million people around the world between 1917 and 1918. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. In the hopes of finding a hibernating specimen of the virus, a scientist from San Francisco by the name of Johan Hultin traveled to Alaska in 1997 and returned home with excavated samples obtained from a cemetery known to have several Spanish flu victims. With the help of Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, they decoded the virus’ entire DNA sequence and successfully re-grew an active virus – proving that pandemic virus strains can indeed hibernate for long periods of time and re-emerge via a variety of pathways, once thawed, that should affect prevention efforts.
According to some scientists, we are just as vulnerable to a pandemic outbreak today as we were in 1918, if not more so. The world’s population has quadrupled and crowding in urbanized areas can be a major factor. With a virus that keeps mutating and exchanging genes, we may find ourselves in an epidemic that could kill between 200 and 400 million people in the blink of an eye.
In the 1890s Siberia saw a massive outbreak of Smallpox. Hundreds of infected corpses were buried under the upper layer of the permafrost next to the Kolyma River. After more than a hundred years, the river’s floodwaters, sped up by the melting of the permafrost, has now started eroding the banks where the bodies are buried. To complicate an already nasty matter, a research team acquired and reassembled the genome’s entire DNA sequence from the body of a child that died in the 17th century in 2016, confirming fears that Smallpox has not been eradicated from the planet, only from its surface.
In 1980, mere months after the last known accidental death related to the disease, the World Health Organisation declared that Smallpox, or the Variola virus, had been eradicated. Today, the only “official” remaining stock of the virus can be found in only two places – the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, and at VECTOR near Novosibirsk, Russia. Yet, forgotten live stocks were discovered in Bethesda, Maryland in 2014, causing fears that other institutions may have misplaced some of their stocks as well.
As the virus is considered an agent of bioterrorism, it’s probably a good thing that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first ever drug to treat it in 2018. The drug has not been tested against humans but had a 90% success rate in treating infected animals.
6. Leprosy & Tuberculosis
Leprosy and Tuberculosis were both commonplace in the 1st Century. Although both diseases are still around today, its long incubation periods (sometimes up to 20 years) and decline in research and elimination campaigns/activities have resulted in newly diagnosed cases that are almost twice that of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) projections, causing the view that global elimination has become unobtainable.
The causative agents of tuberculosis and leprosy, mycobacteria, are extremely resilient and slow-growing and have no known environmental reservoir. Most of the recovered DNA to date has been from medieval graveyards in Europe. But, recently DNA evidence of tuberculous mycobacteria have been recovered from the carcass of a bison found in permafrost that is over 17,000 years old. As these cells can remain in situ, their threat to the global population and our economy remains a major threat.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers mercury one of the top 10 most dangerous chemicals in the world. Mercury exposure can lead to a variety of serious health issues, most notably toxic effects on the skin, blood, eyes, lungs and digestive, nervous and immune systems. Naturally occurring in mineral ore and fossil fuels – dangerous levels of mercury found in fish and shellfish, including its natural predators, have been increasing due to human activity and high levels of mercury can today be found in up to 10% of all Americans.
Amid calls for cleaner energy and better emissions-regulations, scientists recently discovered that the amount of mercury currently in the permafrost is 10 times more than all the mercury we sent into the atmosphere over the past three decades. The 15 million gallons currently vulnerable to climate change is officially the largest reservoir of mercury on the planet and it will be released over the next century (you read that correctly) with unknown consequences to the environment. Simply put, we should enjoy the beach, oysters, and sushi while we still can folks.
Botulism is a rare disease caused by Botulinum toxins, one of the deadliest agents known to mankind. The toxin causes muscle paralysis and usually presents with speaking and swallowing difficulties before metamorphosing into severe full-body paralysis. Medical intervention does not guarantee survival but without treatment, the disease has a 50% mortality rate.
Just like the Anthrax bacteria, Botulinum forms spores which can and have survived in permafrost for more than a century – constituting a very real threat once thawed. Spores can end up in soils, dust and freshwater and marine sediments where an outbreak can be established. During both avian and fish outbreaks, carcasses of the dead animals become a self-sustaining part of the food cycle as they are fed on by maggots or scavenging fish and the spores can end in in freshwater systems or new areas previously unaffected.
As of 1998, Lake Erie has seen annual Botulism outbreaks and they are now becoming more common in the other Great Lakes.
3. Ancient Bacteria
NASA not only employs engineers and astronauts; they also have several research programs where astrobiologists explore the potential of life on Mars and the possibilities of cryogenic freezing and how we can achieve (and survive) long-duration space travel. During a search in the permafrost for “Psychrophiles” – organisms that can only be found in extremely low temperatures – NASA astrobiologist Dr. Richard Hoover discovered bacterium that had been frozen for 32,000 years. After removal from the permafrost and a sugary treat, the bacterium came back to life, as if it had never been frozen. After further testing, NASA concluded that they had found a new life form.
In 2017 scientists also discovered bacteria in a Mexican mine that may much, much older. Trapped inside fluid pockets of retrieved crystals, these microbes also revived and started multiplying after being removed from their ancient encasings. During further tests, scientists were shocked to discover that the bacteria was resistant to 18 types of antibiotics. What’s more, the bacteria were able to inactivate almost 50% of them.
2. Giant Viruses
During 2013 and 2014 scientists discovered two giant viruses in the Siberian permafrost. These viruses, Pithovirus sibericum and Mollivirus sibericum, are so big that they can be viewed under a regular microscope. Once thawed, these viruses immediately became infectious, causing warnings that viruses of ancient Siberian communities also might be revived as the permafrost melts.
Unfortunately for us, melting permafrost is not the only threat. At the moment, most of the region is deserted and the deeper permafrost layers are not being disturbed. However, due to the melting sea ice, the north shore of Siberia is becoming more accessible, leading to industrial expansion – with mining and drilling activities becoming very lucrative.
1. A Host of Unknown Ancient Pathogens
Current fears over potential outbreaks do not only extend to known diseases and recently discovered pathogens. Researchers have been analyzing the DNA content of the permafrost for years and have found the DNA sequences of numerous unknown bacteria that could infect humans in the permafrost. The remains of Neanderthals and Denisovans – populations that settled in Siberia and were riddled with disease, are being uncovered as the snow melts. We may not be immune to the pathogens from these remains
Advances in the research of ancient DNA have proven that diseases have been coevolving with us for thousands of years. The fact that we can be infected by diseases from ancient hominins is terrifying as we do not know, nor can we project their ferocity and measure.