Things to Come: As Arctic Thaws, Sleeping Anthrax Awakens
August 5, 2016
“..as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns ..” – Donald Rumsfeld
Ninety people are undergoing hospital checks in remote northern Russia because of an anthrax outbreak that killed a boy on Monday.
Eight people are confirmed as infected with anthrax, a rare but deadly bacterial disease. It is believed to have spread from reindeer.
More than 2,300 reindeer have died in the outbreak, in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Siberia. Reindeer-herding families have been moved out.
A heatwave has fuelled the disease.
If you’re a climate scientist, what happens when your dire predictions start coming true? The ongoing anthrax outbreak in Siberia is offering us a preview: What was once considered a future theoretical possibility — a re-animated deadly bacterium emerging from the permafrost — is now a reality.
Throughout July, temperatures in northern Siberia have soared as high as 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) during what’s typically the warmest part of the year. It’s unknown exactly how the disease emerged — possibly via a thawed reindeer carcass or human remains at a crumbling, above-ground cemetery that’s typical of the region. Russia has sent troops trained for biological warfare to help establish a quarantine in what’s become the first anthrax outbreak in the region since 1941.
Scientists have been warning for years that melting permafrost might release ancient pathogens, frozen for millennia or longer in northern soils. Over the last decade or so, bacteria have been discovered alive in Alaskan permafrost at temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees Celsius, and in permafrost layers as old as three million years in Siberia. Although the vast majority of known bacteria are harmless, we don’t yet know what’s buried up there, or how dangerous it might be to humans.
And it’s clear that, for now, weather conditions in Siberia are far outside their normal range. Last month, parts of Siberia near where the anthrax outbreak is occurring were as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) warmer than normal, averaged over the entire month. That’s like New York City suddenly adopting the climate of Tucson, Arizona, for the whole month of July. To say the Arctic climate is off the charts this year is an understatement.
“The record-warm Arctic so far this year, which is probably a preview of a two-degrees-warmer globe, will spawn all sorts of surprises that we cannot foresee,” according to Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at Rutgers University whose work focuses on the implications of rapidly diminishing Arctic sea ice. “This is uncharted territory in the human experience, and especially the ecosystem is likely to respond in abrupt ways,” Francis writes in an email.