Thawing Siberian permafrost soil risks rise of anthrax and prehistoric diseases

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(The Telegraph) – 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. 

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

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.

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.

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. 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.

“If the area of these [methane] 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, a Yakutsk biologist who studies northern climates. said. “The catastrophe could exceed Chernobyl.”

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