The thawing permafrost was something we already knew was happening. The rising sea levels, the effect on the seasonal cycles, everything seemingly out of whack. But something has just happened in Russia that was not predictable: an anthrax outbreak.
In an isolated corner of an already isolated land, dozens of indigenous Siberians have been hospitalized and one child has died. The Russian government has begun airlifting families from the Yamal Peninsula region of the Arctic Circle as over 2,000 reindeer have been infected with the disease.
So what caused it?
Although it is not confirmed, the “current hypothesis” is: “A heat wave has thawed the frozen soil there and with it, a reindeer carcass infected with anthrax decades ago.” The question now is: Will this be a new trend on the tundra?
Permafrost is frozen as deep as 1,000 feet underground in parts of the Yamal Peninsula, meaning bacteria can be preserved easily in those temperatures. The theory is, as the summer temperatures rose slightly, more of the permafrost melted to thaw out a 75-year-old reindeer carcass. The anthrax also thawed and revived, releasing spores across the tundra to the reindeer grazing nearby.
As a response, Russian officials are vaccinating living reindeer and burning dead ones. The problem is this thawing is not an isolated case. The temperature in the Arctic Circle is rising three times faster than anywhere else in the world, meaning more and more melting permafrost.
And anthrax-infected bodies are not a surprise. In the early 1900s, repeated anthrax outbreaks hit Siberia and over a million reindeer died. It’s likely there are 7,000 other infected carcasses in this part of the country, buried as deep into the permafrost as was possible at the time. But now, with that permafrost thawing deep enough, the burials are irrelevant to preventing the outbreak.
Described as “Pandora’s Box”, the question is: Will an outbreak be the new trend every summer for Siberia? Or will we manage to halt the thawing of the permafrost?