Anthrax from permafrost? What’s next?

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

Arctic scientists, including ours at WHRC, have been warning for some time that release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost might result in potentially calamitous global consequences. Now, a more immediate permafrost-related threat has suddenly emerged.

An outbreak of anthrax in northern Russia this month killed one person and sickened dozens of others. Apparently the deadly anthrax bacteria had been frozen for decades in permafrost and were activated when the ground thawed as temperatures reached 34 degrees Fahrenheit during a recent “heat wave.” Russian officials are working to contain the disease by vaccinating reindeer, the main “vector” by which anthrax is transmitted to humans.

This particular outbreak will presumably be controlled successfully, but the broader implications are thought-provoking. What other pathogens might be released as arctic permafrost continues to thaw? Projections indicate that somewhere between 30 and 70% of permafrost will thaw during this century. Researchers studying the 1918 influenza virus, “the most lethal organism in the history of man,” have obtained samples of the virus from human remains preserved in permafrost. Other researchers suspect that smallpox and bubonic plague are buried in Siberian permafrost. Given that some sections of permafrost have been frozen for tens of thousands of years, it becomes easy to imagine potentially catastrophic threats: unknown pathogens, or pathogens that humans have not encountered for so long that we have little natural resistance to them.

Why did no one anticipate this possibility, which in hindsight seems unsurprising? Actually, some scientists did. “The 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,” warned two French researchers in 2014, using typically understated language. “Our results … substantiate the possibility that infectious viral pathogens might be released from ancient permafrost layers exposed by thawing, mining, or drilling.” The realization of this previously theoretical possibility forces us to confront a new public health risk from climate change. I hope that we will now be wise enough to take the actions needed to understand and prepare for possible future episodes.

This incident also illustrates how difficult it can be to anticipate specific climate change impacts, even when they fall within broad categories threats that are well-recognized. As another example, we all understand that climate change brings pests to new areas, but no one predicted the devastating effects of pine bark beetles on forests in North America and elsewhere.

Beyond this, there is also the possibility of truly “unknown unknowns,” consequences of climate change that we simply haven’t anticipated. These are bound to exist, and this likelihood lends additional weight to the already-compelling arguments for strong and immediate measures to limit future climate change. That’s our mission at WHRC, and it gets more important every day.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.