Diseases such as the bubonic plague and smallpox may once again make a resurgence thanks to climate change. Bacteria and viruses that have been dormant for thousands of years could once again come into contact with humanity as permafrost begins to melt, releasing the once frozen specimens back into the world. What would happen if these diseases that modern humans have never been into contact with, and have no immunity to, were to spring back to life? We may soon find out.
The BBC reports that many scientists are worried about the potential of long-dormant viruses springing back to life due to climate change. In fact, cases of anthrax in Siberia have already been attributed to climate change and the release of anthrax from frozen carcasses once covered by permafrost. In August of 2016, a 12-year-old boy was killed and numerous people hospitalized after being infected by anthrax from a recently exposed reindeer carcass.
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Researchers revealed that the reindeer carcass had been buried for at least 75 years after dying from an anthrax infection. However, the carcass was then covered with permafrost where it remained until the climate in the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle began to heat up, causing the permafrost to melt. As the permafrost melted away, the carcass was once again exposed and the anthrax made its way into the nearby soil and water. Ultimately, more than 2,000 reindeer would become infected with the anthrax after grazing and drinking water in the area followed by the human cases noted.
Scientists fear that this will not be an isolated incident but rather the perfect situation for dormant bacteria buried in the permafrost to make a resurgence. Evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University in France says that the some diseases that caused global epidemics in the past could resurface as climate change melts deeper layers of permafrost.
“Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past.”
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In fact, the anthrax case in the Yamal Peninsula will likely not be the last. It was noted that in the early 20th century, a million reindeer died from anthrax infection. However, due to the Siberian climate, it is very difficult to dig deep graves. Therefore, most of the million infected reindeer were buried too close to the surface. With the Arctic Circle temperatures raising at a rate three times faster than the rest of the world, it is only a matter of time before the infected carcasses are exposed.
Though anthrax is a concern in itself, scientists are also worried about what other known, and unknown, viruses and bacteria could be lurking in the depths of the Arctic permafrost. With people and animals having been buried in the permafrost for centuries, scientists worry that anthrax is only one of the many infectious diseases that could soon be exposed.
“For instance, scientists have discovered fragments of RNA from the 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska’s tundra. Smallpox and the bubonic plague are also likely buried in Siberia.”
Researchers Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya noted in a study taken in 2011 that “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.”
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While it may seem impossible for diseases to live such a long time in the permafrost, it is not unheard of. In fact, NASA was able to revive 8-million-year-old bacterium that was lying dormant inside of a glacier in Antarctica. Therefore, as permafrost melts, it would not be impossible for previously unknown bacteria and viruses to come back to life.
What do you think about the idea of previously eradicated diseases entering society once again due to climate change?
[Featured Image by iStock/Bernhard_Staehli]