Global Warming in Siberia: Thawing Reindeer Expose Community to Anthrax

Reindeer herding is a family affair in Siberia — and so are the risks.

Need proof that global warming is real? Look no further than the Siberian Arctic, say climate scientists. This summer’s Siberian heat wave, with temperatures that that could easily rival those found in sunny California, has decimated vast tracks of northern Russia’s icy permafrost — areas that usually stay frozen all year long.

But the loss of that subsurface soil isn’t the only thing that is worrying scientists: It’s what happens when layers of ice that have entombed corpses for hundreds or thousands of years aren’t there any longer.

The most recent damage exposed the 75-year-old corpse of a reindeer riddled with the bacteria known as anthrax. One 5-year-old boy has died and 13 others living in the area were sickened. Researchers believe that the infection was transmitted from the corpse.

It’s a scenario that researchers have dreaded considering: What would happen if bodies frozen for decades — or worse, centuries — were to come in contact with current populations? Anthrax is an opportunistic bacteria that can lay dormant in frozen tundra. So can the virus variola, which causes smallpox.

Smallpox, once considered one of the most virulent diseases to exist, was eradicated through vaccines some 40 years ago. The United Nations sees that accomplishment as clear evidence that vaccination works.

But thawing of the Arctic’s permafrost could resurrect that disease if bodies carrying it were to be exposed to air, and to nearby populations that weren’t recently vaccinated. It raises the concern that local communities could one day become the disease vector to an epidemic of smallpox or another high-risk disease.

“Resident indigenous populations of the Arctic are uniquely vulnerable to climate change because of their close relationship with, and dependence on, the land, sea and natural resources for their well-being,” noted researchers Alan J. Parkinson and Birgitta Evengard, in their 2009 paper on climate change and human health in Global Health Action. Parkinson is the deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Arctic Investigations Program. Evengard is a professor and the chief physician with the Department of Clinical Microbiology’s division of infectious diseases at Umea University in Sweden. Both have written extensively on Arctic communities, highlighting the vulnerability that global warming poses to those communities and the world as a whole.

Yamal Peninsula, Siberia.

Much about the long-range environmental impacts of global warming in regions like the Arctic remains unknown. But it’s reasonable to assume that communities, like the reindeer herders who make their living in Siberia’s most northern reaches and were exposed to the anthrax, are at increased risk, the authors say

“Damage to the sanitation infrastructure by melting permafrost or flooding may therefore result in increased rates of [hospitalization],” they wrote in their report. And such exposures also mean greater transmission risk for communities in other parts of the world as populations are forced to migrate.

Anthrax outbreaks aren’t a new phenomena in Siberia. Shallow burial grounds in eastern Siberia lay testimony to that fact. Over the past two centuries, thousands of reindeer died of anthrax infections. The challenges of digging graves in the almost brick-hard permafrost made it necessary to bury them in shallow graves, Evangard explained. Local communities at the time had no reason to think the corpses would one day be exposed to a warming climate. But, really, neither did the scientific community until recently.

“[Temperatures are] rising about three times faster in the Arctic than in the rest of the world,” Evangard told NPR digital editor Michaeleen Doucleff. And that means repeated risk for populations as the temperatures warm.

In 2014, researchers and think tanks got together and formed a circumpolar working group to study and advise on the risks of global warming in the Arctic and other areas under threat from global warming. It comprises public health experts and academic institutions from across the world and joins a network of other specialized groups studying the Arctic. Topics of study include a long and discomforting list of “climate-sensitive” pathogens that may one day pose a greater risk due to global warming.

For now, however, experts are watching to see how well local communities in one of the world’s coldest regions are able to deal with record-high temperatures and unforeseen circumstances. An emergency inoculation program has been started for nomads living in the area. Scientists say anthrax infection will likely pose a risk in Siberia for years to come, adding another challenge to living in what was once Mother Nature’s best-kept freezer.

Images: 1) Flickr/Irina Kazanskaya; 2) Flickr/Arctic Coastal Dynamics

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Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

9 responses

  1. Um, excuse me.

    This story makes it sound like anthrax is a dormant disease, and this reindeer corpse is a new threat.

    It isn’t dormant. It is alive and well. It is so current that sheep shearers get vaccinated for it and a little baby powder in an envelope makes people go bananas. Any wild animal or lifestock that has not been vaccinated could carry it, and anyone who comes in contact with it, alive or dead, could contract it. Fortunately, it can be cured easily if caught soon enough.

    The idea of an anthrax epidemic isn’t a new threat by global warming. Whether one believes in a supreme Being or not, the Bible records some historical events. Some of the plagues of Moses have a rational cause of an anthrax outbreak, and that was over 3,000 years ago, before the internal combustion engine was invented.

    1. Obviously Anthrax is not a new or eradicated disease. but fortunately it is pretty rare in Europe and North America – only a handful of cases each year. While precautions may be in order for those who handle livestock, the disease is just not common in the general population. The concern here is that it could go rampant if long dead animals start being exposed by melting ice.

      Although smallpox can only be transmitted between humans, the possibility of infected human corpses becoming unfrozen is real.

      All-in-all, this probably is not a major risk of climate change, just a little bonus.

    2. It is true that anthrax is endemic in a lot of places. The American West for one. So is the plague. But, just because diseases exist does not mean that it cannot become a health emergency.

      The point is that global warming will cause changes in the environment that can result in conditions more favorable for diseases to spread. This is just an example. Yellow fever, dengue, tick-borne diseases and such can spread further in some places. This is just an example of a ‘surprise’ that resulted from AGW causing a thawing of permafrost. Small pox may be another surprise. The death rate for small pox is higher than for anthrax. Small pox was considered eradicated. Climate change can have unpredictable impacts affecting health and well-being.

      The real issue now – responding to climate change can take resources away from projects that improve health and well-being too, so how do we balance the our response to address emissions and mitigate climate changes without unduly impacting our current health and welfare to a point that is just as damaging as climate change? Predicting climate change is very easy compared to predicting the consequences of change and the results of emission and mitigation strategies. Add the layers that this problems impacts every nation on earth (and not all in the same way), and it will impact all generations (and the impacts change over the decades and centuries), and you can see the difficulty in crafting responsible policies that don’t limit the options for now, or in the future.

      1. Great comments. Thanks, Ingersol and Lloyd for the insights. The concern regarding the impact that climate change can have on the allocation of funding and time needed in health and welfare is a valid point, Lloyd. I hear that concern in some of the papers I have read by the above authors: Ensuring adequate quality of life in remote or low-income communities gets all the harder when you are also concerned about added risks.

    3. Thanks, joeyh for your comment.
      You’re correct. Anthrax itself is not a dormant bacteria. And your examples point to this well. My reference was to laying — perhaps hidden is a better word — within a corpse unbeknownst to those who come in contact with it.
      And you’re also correct that this type of infection has been a concern in previous years. But in recent time, we’ve been pretty careful to minimize exposure, which is why this encounter is so remarkable .
      Thanks again!

  2. I heard an interesting story on the methane trapped in soils in the arctic. The total is one TRILLION MILLION TONS. Basically, 99% of the methane on earth. When the ultra conservative scientists predicted warming, as usual they assume people will listen to facts and act, a dumb assumption with so many selfish greedy Repugs hoping to avoid having to accept responsibility for their actions by simply denying lie a 4 year old. Anyway, we should see a 20 degree increase within 10 years.

    1. So I guess we all need to stop passing gas, because the highest methane comes from the odor of our feces…and animals feces….How about Mad Maxx and the thunderdome….ran on PIG poop. Methane… so everyone stop farting.

  3. I read a different story that states lightening striking the artic and killing many of the Reindeer…so this is where I become weary of the media…what do we believe??? Also not to mention our earth rotates on an axis that is floating in space….it is not foundationally and structurely set in place…there for the slightest change in the earths tilt or rotation could change the typical climates we are used to seeing. I have not researched myself, but I bet once I do I will find articles of places with RECORD lows and freezing temps they are not used to. Is it important to take care of mother earth? Yes….but is she self sustaining, natural resource who can do a recycle and cleanse whenever she wishes??? YES. She has done it before (the ice age). We are not that special. We are no more greater than the plants and animals on this earth..and trust me nature can do away with us humans the same way it did away with dinosaurs….but maybe we are blaming that on their methane gas, and how they started global warming…..SARCASM!

  4. Evolution will save the most suited species and those not able to survive on this planet will rightfully die off. It’s a beautiful system. It goes on regardless of how many scientists agree or how much funding is thrown at scientists. Why even spend money researching something that 97% of scientists already agree upon? The lines have been drawn and you won’t be converting the majority of those who don’t already agree. If humans are to blame then we need to be researching better birth control policies and stop tax and welfare policies that subsidize marriage and having children.

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