Thawing Siberian permafrost soil risks rise of anthrax and prehistoric diseases

When authorities in Yakutsk invited participants in a youth government initiative to brainstorm ideas for an empty lot in the centre last year, it seemed like a smart way to get rid of an eyesore.

But the project was held up after residents and officials raised concerns that the site could hold anthrax spores preserved in the permanently frozen soil.

Although specialists eventually said it was safe to build a skate park on the lot, which once held a laboratory making an anthrax serum, the incident raised further questions about the ancient diseases known to be lurking in the permafrost—and whether they could be unlocked by global warming.

“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,” said Boris Kershengolts, a Yakutsk biologist who studies northern climates. “When they are taken out of the permafrost and put into our temperatures, they revive.”

Yakutsk is the coldest city on earth with temperatures that can drop below -60C in the winter.

But it’s seeing the start of warming that could lead to the destruction of infrastructure and the revival of dormant diseases across the north, even as more people arrive to man new military bases and oil and gas facilities.

At an Arctic forum in St Petersburg on Tuesday, Vladimir Putin called the fact that Russia is warming two-and-a-half times faster than the rest of the world an “alarming trend”.

At the same time, he announced a new Arctic development strategy and promised to increase investment with tax breaks and subsidised icebreaker escorts through the northeast passage.

Two-thirds of Russia’s territory is permafrost, including almost all of the vast region of Yakutia, where it can be up to hundreds of feet deep.

Now these icy bonds are beginning to break. In many places the active layer, the top few feet that thaw and refreeze each year, is thawing earlier and to a greater depth.

Permafrost in central Yakutia is shrinking by one to five centimetres a year and even more in urban areas, according to the Melnikov Permafrost Institute.

Meanwhile, precipitation has increased in 70 per cent of Yakutia since 1966. That thickens the blanket of snow that insulates the ground from the cold air, exacerbating the thaw.

In Yakutsk, where most buildings stand on eight- to 12-metre stilts driven through the active layer into more stable permafrost, many walls are visibly cracking as foundations grow unsteady.

In the nearby town of Khatassy, locals have been calling on the authorities to save six houses on the verge of toppling 30 feet into the Lena river as the degradation of the permafrost speeds up erosion.

Permafrost thawing has also caused thousands of oil and gas pipeline breaks in Russia, Greenpeace has said.

And most alarmingly, it has led to at least one disease epidemic.

In the West, anthrax is best known as the powder mailed to news outlets after the September 11 attacks, but here it’s called “Siberian plague” for ravaging livestock and people in that part of the country in previous centuries.

Caused by a bacteria that can occur naturally in the soil, anthrax typically infects animals through plants or water they consume and has caused periodic outbreaks throughout history.

Humans can similarly become ill by breathing, drinking, eating or coming into contact with the bacteria’s spores through an open cut, often developing blisters with a telltale black centre. If complications like fever, vomiting and bloody diarrhoea aren’t treated with antibiotics in time, they can lead to death.

Warming has already been tied to the first outbreak of anthrax in the Arctic region of Yamal in 70 years. Amid temperatures of up to 35C in 2016, an estimated 2,000 reindeer died and 96 people were hospitalised. A 12-year-old boy died from eating raw venison, as is the local custom, that was infected.

Experts on the ground concluded that the “appearance of anthrax was stimulated by the activation of ‘old’ infection sites following anomalously high air temperature and the thawing of the sites to a depth beyond normal levels”.

Anthrax spores can lie dormant underground until temperatures warm to 15C, creating conditions for their reproduction.

In previous centuries, residents of the far north did not want to waste scarce firewood burning carcasses and instead interred them in thousands of mass “cattle graves” scraped into the hard permafrost. Nomadic herders simply left reindeer were they fell and thereafter avoided these “cursed fields”.

Today, the locations of cattle graves are kept secret since they are closed to the public.

“Why increase the phobia about these animal burial grounds?” Mr Kershengolts explained.

But more than a third of the 13,885 cattle burial grounds in Russia did not meet sanitary norms, according to a state report in 2009.

As permafrost thaws, water flows through it more easily, carrying away spores to potentially infect new victims.

When anthrax expert Vasily Seliverstov arrived to respond to the Yamal outbreak, he encountered scatterings of dead reindeer lying “in a chain” along several miles of the afflicted herd’s migration route.

He blames that summer’s drought. While precipitation is on the rise elsewhere, it’s actually decreasing in the northernmost tundra zone.

Anthrax spores were washed into the silt of one of the small lakes that dot the swampy tundra, Mr Seliverstov believes. When the water dried up, hungry reindeer may have come to graze on the anthrax-infected grass that grew in its place.

The threat of anthrax spreading from cattle graves must also be better monitored, he added.

Yakutia has more such sites than any other region. A 2011 study found there had been more anthrax outbreaks in districts where warming was the greatest, killing 21 people between 1949 and 1996.

Other diseases could be waiting as well. Researchers found smallpox DNA fragments on bodies in the Russian permafrost and RNA from the 1918 Spanish flu in Alaska.

Some even fear that those involved in Yakutia’s woolly mammoth tusk trade could pick up “paleo-pathogens”—prehistoric diseases that humans may have never encountered—after live bacteria was found in mammoth remains frozen for 20,000 years.

A 2014 study revived even older viruses from the Siberian permafrost, and scientists were able to bring an 8-million-year-old bacterium back to life from Antarctic ice.

Mr Kershengolts fears that disease could spread beyond the far north in light of mysterious craters believed to be caused by the explosion of methane hydrates.

These frozen “methane bombs” expand massively when they thaw, building up pressure until they erupt, said Mikhail Grigoryev of the permafrost institute. Since methane traps 30 times more energy than carbon dioxide, its widespread release could profoundly speed up climate change.

A dozen craters and 7,000 small hills probably containing methane hydrate have been discovered in Yamal. Yakutia is home to craters like the so-called “gateway to hell,” which is more than half a mile long.

“If the area of these emissions overlaps with the burials of animals or humans who died from diseases in previous centuries, these spores and pathogens could spread over a huge area. It would be a disaster not just for the Arctic,” Mr Kerhsengolts said. “The catastrophe could exceed Chernobyl.”

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