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Goudarzi writes: "Researchers have predicted for years that one of the effects of global warming could be that whatever is frozen in permafrost-such as ancient bacteria-might be released as temperatures climb. Now they are witnessing the theoretical turning into reality: infectious microorganisms emerging from a deep freeze."

Veterinarians perform a health checkup on a young deer on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia after an anthrax outbreak there. (photo: Russian Emergency Ministry/AFP)
Veterinarians perform a health checkup on a young deer on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia after an anthrax outbreak there. (photo: Russian Emergency Ministry/AFP)

As Earth Warms, the Diseases That May Lie Within Permafrost Become a Bigger Worry

By Sara Goudarzi, Scientific American

30 October 16


Scientists are witnessing the theoretical turning into reality: infectious microbes emerging from a deep freeze

his past summer anthrax killed a 12-year-old boy in a remote part of Siberia. At least 20 other people, also from the Yamal Peninsula, were diagnosed with the potentially deadly disease after approximately 100 suspected cases were hospitalized. Additionally, more than 2,300 reindeer in the area died from the infection. The likely cause? Thawing permafrost. According to Russian officials, thawed permafrost—a permanently frozen layer of soil—released previously immobile spores of Bacillus anthracis into nearby water and soil and then into the food supply. The outbreak was the region's first in 75 years.

Researchers have predicted for years that one of the effects of global warming could be that whatever is frozen in permafrost—such as ancient bacteria—might be released as temperatures climb. This could include infectious agents humans might not be prepared for, or have immunity to, the scientists said. Now they are witnessing the theoretical turning into reality: infectious microorganisms emerging from a deep freeze.

Although anthrax occurs naturally in all soil and outbreaks unrelated to permafrost can occur, extensive permafrost thaw could increase the number of people exposed to anthrax bacteria. In a 2011 paper published in Global Health Action, co-authors Boris A. Revich and Marina A. Podolnaya wrote of their predictions: “As a consequence of permafrost melting, 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.”

And permafrost is indeed thawing—at higher latitudes and to greater depths than ever before. In various parts of Siberia the active layer above permafrost can thaw to a depth of 50 centimeters every summer. This summer, however, there was a heat wave in the region, and temperatures hovered around 35 degrees Celsius—25 degrees warmer than usual. The difference possibly expanded or deepened the thaw and mobilized microorganisms usually stuck in rigid earth. Although scientists have yet to calculate the final depth, they postulate that it is a number that has not been seen in almost a century. Permafrost thaw overall could become widespread with temperatures only slightly higher than those at present, according to a 2013 study in Science. Heat waves in higher latitudes are becoming more frequent as well.

What thawing permafrost could unleash depends on the heartiness of the infectious agent involved. A lot of microorganisms cannot survive in extreme cold, but some can withstand it for many years. “B. anthracis are special because they are sporulating bacteria,” says Jean-Michel Claverie, head of the Mediterranean Institute of Microbiology and a professor at Aix-Marseille University in France. “Spores are extremely resistant and, like seeds, can survive for longer than a century.”

Viruses could also survive for lengthy periods. In 2014 and 2015 Claverie and his colleague Chantal Abergel published their findings on two still infectious viruses from a chunk of 30,000-year-old Siberian permafrost. Although Pithovirus sibericum and Mollivirus sibericum can infect only amoebas, the discovery is an indication that viruses that infect humans—such as smallpox and the Spanish flu—could potentially be preserved in permafrost.

Human viruses from even further back could also make a showing. For instance, the microorganisms living on and within the early humans who populated the Arctic could still be frozen in the soil. “There are hints that Neandertals and Denisovans could have settled in northern Siberia [and] were plagued by various viral diseases, some of which we know, like smallpox, and some others that might have disappeared,” Claverie says. “The fact that there might be an infection continuity between us and ancient hominins is fascinating—and might be worrying.”

Janet Jansson, who studies permafrost at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State, is not worried about ancient viruses. Several attempts to discover these infectious agents in corpses have come up empty, she notes. She does advocate, however, for further research to identify the wide range of permafrost-dwelling organisms, some of which could pose health risks. To accomplish that goal, she and others are using modern molecular tools—such as DNA sequencing and protein analysis—to categorize the properties of unknown microorganisms, sometimes referred to as microbial dark matter.

The likelihood and frequency of outbreaks similar to the one in Siberia will depend on the speed and trajectory of climate change. For instance, it is possible that another heat wave will expose the carcasses of animals infected by anthrax, Revich says. “The situation on the Yamal Peninsula has shown that the risk of the spread of anthrax is already real,” he adds.

In effect, infectious agents buried in the permafrost are unknowable and unpredictable in their timing and ferocity. Thus, researchers say thawing permafrost is not our biggest worry when it comes to infectious diseases and global warming. The more immediate, and certain, threat to humans is the widening geographical ranges of modern infectious diseases (and their carriers, such as mosquitoes) as the earth warms. “We now have dengue in southern parts of Texas,” says George C. Stewart, McKee Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and chair of the department of veterinary pathobiology at the University of Missouri. “Malaria is seen at higher elevations and latitudes as temperatures climb. And the cholera agent, Vibrio cholerae, replicates better at higher temperatures.”

Unlike the zombie microbes lurking in the permafrost, modern spreading diseases are more of a known quantity, and there are proved ways to curb them: mapping trends, eliminating mosquito-breeding sites and spraying insecticides. Of course, dramatically lowering fossil-fuel emissions to combat climate change could tackle both threats—the resurgence of ancient and deadly pathogens and the widening ranges of infectious diseases—in one shot. your social media marketing partner


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+8 # moreover 2016-10-30 22:31
"We now have dengue in southern parts of Texas" - that's the immediate threat. Glad the article got around to it at the end.
+5 # Texas Aggie 2016-10-31 09:47
Just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The Aedes aegypti and A. albopictus mosquitoes responsible for vectoring a host of nasty diseases are moving north as the temperatures rise.

Here is the map
+1 # Ted 2016-10-31 13:01
Zika... Isn't that the virus that clinton's friends the rockefellers own?
+12 # VoiceOfReason 2016-10-31 01:25
VERY frightening, and yet many people, including most conservatives and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump are in denial about climate change.
Here are additional reasons we all should be very concerned about climate change:
1. Science academies worldwide, 97% of climate scientists, and 99.9% of peer-reviewed papers on the issue in respected scientific journals argue that climate change is real, is largely caused by human activities, and poses great threats to humanity. In December 2015, 195 nations at the Paris climate change conference all agreed that immediate action must be taken to avert a climate catastrophe.
2. Every decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous decade and all of the 17 warmest years since temperature records were kept in 1880 have been since 1998. 2015 is the warmest year globally since 1880 when worldwide temperature records were first kept, breaking the record held before by 2014, and 2016 is on track to become the warmest year. The previous 16 months (as of September 2016) have all broken records for being the hottest month with its name (March, April, etc.). This means, for example, that April 2016 was the warmest April since 1880. July 2016 was the warmest month ever recorded.
3. Polar icecaps and glaciers worldwide have been melting rapidly, faster than scientific projections. This is a factor behind projections that the oceans may rise as much as ten feet by mid-century.
+10 # VoiceOfReason 2016-10-31 01:29
Additional reasons to be concerned about climate change include:

4. The Pentagon and other military groups believe that climate change will increase the potential for instability, terrorism, and war by reducing access to food and clean water and by causing tens of millions of desperate refuges fleeing from droughts, wildfires, floods, storms, and other effects of climate change.
5. The conservative group ConservAmerica (, formerly known as ‘Republicans for Environmental Protection,’ is very concerned about climate change threats. They are working to end the denial about climate threats and the urgency of working to avert them on the part of the vast majority of Republicans, but so far with very limited success.
+16 # Patriot 2016-10-31 03:20
Yet earlier this year Congress told the Deoartment of Defense to stick to planning wars, and refused funding for the development of plans to deal with the aforementioned HIGHLY LIKELY scenarios.

The Senate and house are full of absolute idiots, so drowned by bribery that they're not only morally bankruput, but intellectually bankrupt.

When you vote on the 8th, PLEASE don't return incumbents to Congress unless you KNOW they are Greens, Progressives, or at least moderates! We must eject the climate change deniers! The life of our planet depends upon doing so--THIS ELECTION!

And, please vote for Jill Stein who is the ONLY candidate who has serious, responsible, and practicable plans for slowing and, eventually reversing climate change.

Read the Green Party Platform--at which she is campaigning, and for which she was worked and fought for during the past several decades.

Folks, the time for politicsand business as usual, for incremental change, for denial and ignornce of the dire situation on this planet is OVER--LONG PAST! We must act NOW if we are to continue to have a habitable planet upon which to live.
+1 # Ted 2016-10-31 07:53
Patriot you are sooo right!

SWEEPING changes MUST be made on many levels of our society NOW if we are going to have ANY hope of improving the dire ecological problems we've created and improving our quality of life and justice across the board.

I'm afraid we ignored a rare opportunity to make any of those sweeping changes when we allowed the political establishment and it's corporate media to fool us into not shifting Bernie's phenomenal and unbeatable momentum to Jill Stein when that moment came.

We pathetically allowed ourselves to be tricked into dropping the ball of Bernie's powerful success and turned our backs on the rare chance Bernie worked so hard to give us.

We have only ourselves to blame for that and we will suffer the consequences of our foolishness but we CAN minimize the future damage we could cause by renewing our commitment to the priorities Bernie stood for and working toward rebuilding those opportunities again.

We blew it in the 2016 election but we can continue to strengthen the Green Party every day and hopefully soon gain back that glorious hope and purpose that Bernie Sanders tried so hard to give to us.

We should NEVER compromise that great man's ideals ever again.

Go Green.
+7 # Elroys 2016-10-31 08:50
At what point does "free speech" become "lunatic fringe speech"; does there come a point at which the deniers - who are either clearly ignorant or simply lying about climate change for various reasons - are shut down because of the clear and present danger they present to all of humanity and the future? These people are clearly endangering all of our children's future in very real ways. I thought that yelling "fire" in a crowded theater was illegal.
When do we hold Exxon and others of their ilk accountable for their 40 years of lying about this to their shareholders, customers and the public? Or do we simply go quietly into the darkness and allow the nuts to run the asylum?
+7 # Ted 2016-10-31 09:05
Excellent point!

I wouldn't have thought it would ever be necessary to amend the constitution to spell out the rule that personal profit DOES NOT supercede public well-being (be it a $billion corporation building pipelines through freshwater sources or a mom and pop store selling poisoned sugar to children).

But perhaps the common sense rule of People Before Profit DOES need to be made rock-solid law in a society that allows it's politicians to sell out their responsibilitie s for some extra campaign cash.
+2 # swissms 2016-10-31 10:45
Just reading about the millions of indigenous Americans wiped out in an incredibly short period by bugs they had no immunity to. We should be very afraid.
+2 # Ted 2016-10-31 13:02
Just don't take any free blankets (or even t-shirts) from clinton...

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