In June 2016, a mysterious plague ravaged the Yamal Peninsula’s reindeer population. Two thousand reindeer perished in western Siberia, and by early August, 115 indigenous Nenets were hospitalized and a 12-year-old boy had died.
Anthrax, a deadly bacterial infection that had been absent from the region for 75 years, was the cause of death. Experts believe that anthrax spores, long-dormant in frozen permafrost, were reawakened as the ground thawed amid rising Arctic temperatures.
Permafrost is ground that remains frozen for over two years, and it covers 23 million square kilometers in the northern hemisphere. As Arctic temperatures warm twice as fast as the global average, long-frozen permafrost is thawing for the first time in thousands of years.
Thawing permafrost has global implications regarding disease, climate change, and infrastructure. Permafrost has the potential to unleash ancient pathogens as it thaws, and like the novel coronavirus, these will be pathogens against which modern humans have no immunity. Thawing permafrost, which contains long-frozen organic material, also releases greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change. In addition, a significant portion of Arctic infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines, is built on permafrost that could become unstable by mid-century.
This summer, Siberia hit a sweltering 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit), and perennial “zombie wildfires” ripped across the Arctic. In conjunction with the frequent excavation of Siberia’s natural resources, these conditions are creating an ideal environment for continued permafrost thaw.
A Pandora’s Box of Disease
Dark, cold, and anaerobic, permafrost is an ideal preservative for pathogens. The anthrax outbreak in 2016 likely originated from an infected reindeer carcass that was buried and frozen in 1941. Regional temperatures in the summer of 2016 hit 35 degrees Celsius, and as the permafrost thawed, the anthrax spores leached into groundwater that local people drink. The boy who died in the Yamal contracted the intestinal form of anthrax, suggesting his infection was waterborne.
Scientists postulate that the Siberian anthrax is the tip of the iceberg, and as rising global temperatures penetrate deeper into the permafrost, microbes that date back to the age of the Neanderthals may reemerge. In Alaska, scientists have uncovered fragments of RNA from the virus that catalyzed the Spanish flu; parts of the variola virus, which causes smallpox, were identified in 300-year-old mummies in eastern Siberia; in Antarctica, a team of scientists successfully revived an 8-million-year-old bacterium long-frozen beneath a glacier; and a new type of giant virus that infects single-cell amoebae has been discovered in Siberian permafrost.
Dr. Vitalii Timofeev, who has studied anthrax in the Yamal Peninsula and Yakutia, cautions that warming Arctic temperatures may foster new diseases due to increased Arctic vegetation and shifting animal migration patterns, the Arctic’s complicated history of disease, and the possibility that modern microorganisms will develop resistance to antibiotics.
Many lethal diseases infect animals before humans. The bubonic plague festered among fleas, the Spanish flu may have originated in pigs or birds, the swine and bird flus first inflicted their eponyms, and COVID-19 is believed to have originated in bats. If thawing permafrost were to trigger a new pandemic, it would likely begin among animals.
As temperatures climb at higher latitudes, animals are migrating north and encountering species endemic to these regions. Neither the migratory animals nor the regional species will have developed immunities to each others’ diseases, which Timofeev refers to as the “perfect conditions for epidemics, especially… anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, glanders, and plague.”
Disease has circulated among grazing Arctic mammals for hundreds of thousands of years. As these animals died, many became embalmed in permafrost. “The causative agents of these diseases are frozen in permafrost, and can be thawed,” says Timofeev of the interned carcasses. The grazing nature of these species means their remains are likely peppered across large swaths of land.
Some ancient organisms possessed resistance to antibiotics that modern species do not. “Some genes of resistance to several classes of antibiotics… have already been found in microorganisms preserved in permafrost, says Timofeev. As permafrost thaws, it is possible that these genes will be introduced to modern organisms, which, in turn, will develop a similar resistance.
According to Dr. Anatoli Brouchkov, who is on the faculty of the Geocryology Department at Moscow State University, when ancient pathogens enter the biosphere, “anything can be created, much more dangerous then anthrax or COVID-19… any mutations can happen.”
The Threat of Runaway Warming
Current models predict that global temperatures will rise between 1.5 and 5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, and though it’s impossible to determine the exact amount of future warming, experts concede that warming results from increased greenhouse gas emissions.
When permafrost thaws, it unleashes massive amounts of greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — into the atmosphere. This process, which is often overlooked by Earth Systems models that project climate warming, may trigger a runaway warming scenario.
“The relationship between climate warming and permafrost (thaw) can be seen as a ‘vicious circle,’” explains Dr. Jan Hjort, professor of physical geography at the University of Oulu in Finland. “Climate warming thaws permafrost that likely boosts the release of greenhouse gases, and that warms the climate even more.”
Although permafrost only accounts for 15 percent of the global soil area, it contributes 50 percent to global carbon stores. Dead plants, animals, and microbes that normally release carbon when they decompose cannot do so when frozen in permafrost. But when the permafrost thaws, the organisms within begin to break down and release significant amounts of carbon.
Under a “business as usual” scenario of climate warming, thawing permafrost will release 200 billion tons of carbon over the next 300 years. This estimate doesn’t take into account abrupt thaw, which occurs when underground ice melts, causing the soil above to collapse. Twenty percent of the northern permafrost area is susceptible to abrupt thaw, which could release up to 100 billion additional tons of carbon.
Three hundred billion tons of carbon in 300 years is negligible compared to the 40 billion tons released by human activity every year. But as Dr. E.A.G. Schuur and his team point out in a 2015 study on carbon feedback, “each additional ton of carbon released from the permafrost region to the atmosphere will probably incur additional costs to society.”
Infrastructure at Risk
In early June, a fuel tank collapsed near the Siberian city of Norilsk, causing the Ambarnaya River to glow crimson after 20,000 tons of diesel seeped into its waters. Norilsk Nickel, the company that owns the plant, stated that one of the tank’s pillars became unstable when the permafrost beneath it thawed.
In Norilsk alone, nearly 60 percent of the buildings have been compromised by thawing permafrost and over 100 have been vacated. According to Hjort, who was part of a team that published a 2018 paper on the effects of degrading permafrost, up to one-third of Arctic infrastructure is built on permafrost that could become unstable by 2050.
“In general, damage of critical infrastructure could threaten sustainable development of Siberian communities,” says Hjort, citing socioeconomic problems and an increased cost of living. Four million people rely on infrastructure in high-risk areas, and will face myriad struggles should their buildings, roads, and railways break down.
For indigenous communities, infrastructure breakdown and climate warming threaten an ancient way of life. Indigenous peoples combat changing ecosystems and tempestuous weather conditions to preserve traditions including reindeer herding, hunting, gathering, and fishing. Remote communities that rely on snow cover, permafrost, and ice for natural refrigeration, drinking water, and travel are facing food and water insecurity as well as isolation. Severe flooding and permafrost thaw have decimated houses and barns, and in extreme cases have forced residents to abandon their villages.
Beyond upending communities, thawing permafrost has the potential to “cause ecosystem disruptions… and/or compromise safe utilization of natural resources” says Hjort. Thawing permafrost will not only devastate the Arctic; over one-third of EU pipeline imports come from Russia and nearly half of Siberian oil and natural gas fields are in high-risk areas. “If no adaptation measures are used,” says Hjort, “extraction and delivery of natural resources… may be jeopardized.”
Hjort’s research projects a sobering outlook: Even if the standards set by the Paris Climate Agreement are met, nearly the same amount of infrastructure will be adversely affected before 2050. However, if nations limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as the Paris Climate Agreement stipulates, damage to Arctic infrastructure will subside after 2050.
Hjort cautions that his team’s findings “should be taken as a ‘wake-up call.’” In the short term, builders can implement insulation and thermosiphons to reinforce existing infrastructure, and may bolster new structures with pillars that extend deep into the ground. But in the long term, only reduced warming can mitigate the effects of degrading Arctic infrastructure.
Kira Leadholm is a freelance journalist who spent the past year in Almaty, Kazakhstan teaching English and reporting on LGBT+ issues, arts and culture, and politics. She holds a B.A. in creative writing and visual arts from the University of Chicago and currently resides in Chicago, where she is pursuing an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University.