Melting Permafrost Releases Deadly, Long-Dormant Anthrax in Siberia

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Melting Permafrost Releases Deadly, Long-Dormant Anthrax in Siberia

"This week's anthrax outbreak signals that global warming is transforming Siberia's lonely wilderness into a feverish nightmarescape"

The cause of the anthrax outbreak could have been infected human remains from a local Nenets burial ground. (Photo: Siberian Times)

A Russian heatwave has activated long-dormant anthrax bacteria in Siberia, sickening at least 13 people and killing one boy and more than 2,300 reindeer.

According to the Siberian Times on Monday:

A total of 72 people are now in hospital, a rise of 32 since Friday, under close observation amid fears of a major outbreak. 41 of those hospitalized are children as Russia copes with a full scale health emergency above the polar circle which has also killed thousands of reindeer.

A state of emergency has been imposed throughout the region in western Siberia, and reindeer herding communities have been quarantined.

While NBC News last week pinned the blame for the outbreak on "[t]he carcass of a reindeer thought to have died from anthrax decades ago," new reports suggest an old burial ground could be the source. 

Nadezhda Noskova, press secretary of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region government, told the Siberian Times:

We are working out all the versions of what has happened. The first version is that due to the very hot weather permafrost thawed and bared the carcass of an animal which died from anthrax long ago. 

The other version is that it could have been a human body. The point is that Nenets and Khanty peoples do not bury their dead in the ground.

They put them into the wooden coffins—they resemble boxes—and place them on a stand or hillock. 

The old cemetery could be also the source of the disease.

But regardless of the precise culprit, there's little doubt that climate change is exacerbating the health crisis.

The Washington Post noted last week, "Temperatures have soared in western Russia's Yamal tundra this summer," with several regions seeing record heat. Indeed, temperatures in the Yamal tundra above the Arctic Circle have hit highs of 95°F this summer, compared to an average of 77°F.

The Post quoted two Russian researchers, who warned in 2011: "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."

"The extreme heat has triggered a seemingly endless rash of freak weather, natural disasters, and signs of ecological malaise, including enormous wildfires, record flooding, and natural moon bounces [methane bubbles] that might be explosive," staff writer Maddie Stone reported at Gizmodo. "But above all else, this week's anthrax outbreak—the first to hit the region since 1941—signals that global warming is transforming Siberia's lonely wilderness into a feverish nightmarescape."

Or, as Charles Pierce wrote at Esquire on Monday, "an anthrax strain that has spent 75 years resting, sleeping a lot, going a few times a week to the Bacteria Gym, and generally muscling up, gets another chance at sickening reindeer and people because the Great Climate Change Hoax has thawed the permafrost, so it gets its shot at the reindeer and people that didn't die in the record wildfires. I would point out that one of our two major political parties doesn't believe that any of this is happening, and that the party's candidate for president thinks it all might be a hoax thought up by the Chinese."

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