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Thawing Siberian permafrost could see anthrax and prehistoric diseases come back to life

Thawing Siberian permafrost could see anthrax and prehistoric diseases come back to life as temperatures warm rapidly and create a breeding ground for dormant spores, scientist claims

  • Thawing Siberian permafrost may release viral spores buried for 2,500 years  
  • Buried mass animal graves that died of the disease could unleash an epidemic
  • Anthrax spores can lie dormant until temperature rises to 15°C  
  • ‘Methane bombs’ found in the region further accelerate disease spread 

The coldest city on earth may unleash anthrax and other ancient diseases as the permafrost trapping the deadly spores continues to thaw.

Soaring global temperatures could cause an epidemic that would be more ‘catastrophic’ than the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl, scientists claim.  

Ancient Siberian permafrost entombs prehistoric animals as well as the spores which can reproduce and spread at temperatures as low as 15°C (59°F). 

This is not the first time melting permafrost has triggered a disease outbreak – in 2016, thousands of reindeer died and hundreds of people were hospitalised due to the ‘revival’ of ancient anthrax spores in northwest Siberia.  

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The city of Yakutsk pictured)  in the region of Yakutia in Siberia, known as the coldest city on earth where temperatures can reach below -60°C in the winter. It may be revealing its long-frozen secrets due to warming Arctic temperatures that could risk an epidemic being unleashed

The city of Yakutsk pictured)  in the region of Yakutia in Siberia, known as the coldest city on earth where temperatures can reach below -60°C in the winter. It may be revealing its long-frozen secrets due to warming Arctic temperatures that could risk an epidemic being unleashed

Around two-thirds of Russia is made up of permafrost – including almost all of the area known as Yakutia.  

The city of Yakutsk in the region of Yakutia is regarded as the coldest city on earth and large swathes of land have been permanent frozen for thousands of years. 

The area is also home to mass burial sites of animals and cattle which are thought to have died from infectious disease such as anthrax and smallpox.

As permafrost continues to thaw, more ancient bacteria could be released. Permafrost is able to preserve for hundreds of thousands of years – possibly even a million. 

Boris Kershengolts, a Yakutsk biologist told the Telegraph : ‘Anthrax spores can stay alive in the permafrost for up to 2,500 years. That’s scary given the thawing of animal burial grounds from the 19th century.

‘When they are taken out of the permafrost and put into our temperatures, they revive.’

He added: ‘It would be a disaster not just for the Arctic.

‘The catastrophe could exceed Chernobyl.’

The threat of epidemic is real, as a 2016 outbreak of Anthrax – the first outbreak for 70 years – in the Arctic in Yamal in Northwest Sibera was linked to thawing permafrost.

Scientists managed to isolate the Anthrax strains Bacillus anthracis and had independently isolated the strain in Yakutia in 2015, although no outbreak occurred there.

Scientists have compared a potential epidemic to being more 'catastrophic' than the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. Ancient Siberian permafrost burying mass animal graves and a former Anthrax lab in the coldest city on Earth Yakutsk, could throw up dormant viral spores if it continues to melt

Scientists have compared a potential epidemic to being more ‘catastrophic’ than the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. Ancient Siberian permafrost burying mass animal graves and a former Anthrax lab in the coldest city on Earth Yakutsk, could throw up dormant viral spores if it continues to melt

WHAT IS ANTHRAX? 

Anthrax is the name of the potentially-deadly disease caused by the spores of bacteria Bacillus anthracis.

As the disease can survive in harsh climates, Anthrax spores have been weaponised by at least five countries: Britain, Japan, the United States, Russia and Iraq.

The disease can be contracted by touching, inhaling or swallowing spores, which can lie dormant in water and soil for years.

It is most deadly, however, when the spores are inhaled, which is why the threat of a letter containing the disease is taken very seriously by authorities. 

About 80 per cent of people who inhale the spores will die, in some cases even with immediate medical intervention. 

Sources: NHS and US Centers for Disease Control

With temperatures rising to highs of 35°C (95°F), the resulting outbreak caused around 2,000 reindeer deaths and nearly 100 hospitalised patients.

‘Methane bombs’ underground release natural gases which speeds up the melting of the permanently frozen land. 

Furthermore, these crater-like structures explode can trigger explosions that release heat.

After the explosion they lead to the formation of bizarre Arctic craters. 

Methane contain 30 times more energy than carbon dioxide and is a key greenhouse gas.  

Permafrost - ground that has been frozen for at least two years - covers 25 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere, keeping ancient bacteria, viruses and carbon preserved and locked away, much like a freezer does. Pictured is a map of permafrost extent across Arctic region

Permafrost – ground that has been frozen for at least two years – covers 25 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere, keeping ancient bacteria, viruses and carbon preserved and locked away, much like a freezer does. Pictured is a map of permafrost extent across Arctic region

'Methane bombs' found locally could further aggravate the problem with by accelerating temperature rises and therefore the spread of disease. After the explosion they lead to the formation of bizarre Arctic craters. Pictured is a crater formed by a recent permafrost explosion in the Russian arctic

‘Methane bombs’ found locally could further aggravate the problem with by accelerating temperature rises and therefore the spread of disease. After the explosion they lead to the formation of bizarre Arctic craters. Pictured is a crater formed by a recent permafrost explosion in the Russian arctic

The ice in the Siberian region can be hundreds of feet deep and the top layer is known as the ‘active layer’ which freezes and refreezes throughout the year.  

In recent years, researchers have found that this layer is not only thawing earlier in the year, it is also melting to greater depth, causing scientists to be concerned of potential collapses. 

Increased snow precipitation experienced by most of the region in the last few decades also insulates the ground permafrost which is then a higher temperature than air temperature. 

Current levels of permafrost shrinkage in the region is at the scale of up to two inches (5cm) a year.  

THREATS POSED BY THAWING PERMAFROST  

Permafrost, mostly found in high-latitude regions like the Arctic, stores large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane, which are released into the atmosphere if the soil melts and decomposes. 

As permafrost melts and releases gases into the atmosphere which cause warming, permafrost melts even more, releasing more of these gases such as methane and CO2, leading a positive feedback loop that worsens climate change. 

But other threats posed by melting permafrost include:

  • Release of ancient microbes: In late August, an anthrax outbreak in Siberia caused 72 people to become sick, and killed a 12-year-old boy. This was because an anthrax-infected reindeer had thawed, releasing the bacteria.
  • Damaged landscapes and roads: When the ice in the permafrost thaws, the water runs off and the ground above can slump, deform, or fall apart. The Alaska Dispatch News has reported that thawing permafrost is warping roads in Bethel, Alaska.
  • Loss of historical records: Thawing permaforst could also threaten natural historical records. For example, ‘Otzi’, a 5-300 year-old dead man found in the Alps, would not have been so well preserved if he had thawed.
As permafrost melts and releases gases into the atmosphere which cause warming, permafrost melts even more, releasing more of these gases such as methane and CO2, leading a positive feedback loop that worsens climate change

As permafrost melts and releases gases into the atmosphere which cause warming, permafrost melts even more, releasing more of these gases such as methane and CO2, leading a positive feedback loop that worsens climate change

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Written by Angle News

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