The heat is on: Anthrax has already escaped from our melting permafrost. It probably will again, with other pathogens to follow.

Anthrax is a deadly bacterium. Inhaled, it will kill 8 in 10 people if not treated in time. That’s why, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it was the microbial weapon of choice sent through the mail to Capitol Hill and media figures. It affected 22 people, closed down the Hart Senate Office Building for months, disrupted mail delivery, took billions of dollars to fix – and terrorized a nation. Imagine, then, what would happen if Nature were to melt the earth’s layer of permafrost, thereby causing the release of centuries-old stored anthrax into our atmosphere.

The drip, drip, drip of Nature’s involvement in pathogen release began, perhaps, last summer in northwest Russia when it was reported that a 12-year-old boy was killed by anthrax and 90 others were sent to hospital. Officials said the outbreak was caused by an unusually intense summer heat that melted the permafrost, exposing a reindeer carcass containing anthrax that spread to the local population. The regional governor imposed a quarantine on the Yamal Peninsula – the affected area – and insisted that the situation was under control. In the Yamal, it probably was.

But the melting permafrost problem we’re left with wraps around the global north – which includes the upper areas of provincial Canada – and is growing. For example, Inside Climate News reported in February that a massive permafrost thaw is underway in Canada: that 52,000 square miles are in rapid decline and this is potentially accelerating global warming.

Permafrost acts like a giant freezer. More than 1,000 feet deep in places, it has captured, stored and kept alive bacteria and viruses for a very long time. But as the permafrost thaws those infectious agents such as anthrax will come back to life and eventually infect people and animals. That’s in addition to the more publicized effects such as methane gas emission – which warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2 – and a heaving landscape strewn with impassable undulating roads, drunken trees, and collapsing homes & buildings.

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Physician Birgitta Evengård, who heads the infectious disease unit at Sweden’s Umea University, studies how climate change alters the spread of diseases. She told NPR there’s likely to be more cases of anthrax resurfacing because climate change is causing the temperature in the Arctic Circle to rise very quickly.

EVENGARD: It’s about three times faster than in the rest of the world. And this means that the ice is melting, and the permafrost is thawing.

NPR: A hundred years ago, there were repeated anthrax outbreaks in Siberia. More than a million reindeer died. Now there are about 7,000 burial grounds with infected carcasses scattered across northern Russia.

EVENGARD: It’s not that easy to dig to bury these animals, so they are kind of very close to the surface.

NPR: Wow. So there could be these outbreaks happening every summer?

EVENGARD: Yes, this is serious.

NPR: People and animals have been buried in permafrost for centuries. There could be bodies infected with all kinds of viruses and bacteria, frozen in time. [Evengard] says scientists are just starting to look for it.

EVENGARD: So we really don’t know. This is Pandora’s box.

NPR: There’s also likely smallpox buried up there and the bubonic plague. So the question for researchers is, could these pathogens, like anthrax, ever be reactivated?

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