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Anthrax, smallpox and poisoning - 3 terrifying effects of global warming

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:48 IST

In the first season of TheX-Files, a group of scientists drilling in the arctic accidentally release a parasite that had been trapped beneath the ice for millennia. While the whole episode was filled with Mulder's usual musings on UFOs, the episode did pose a terrifying question - What threats to humanity might be lying dormant, trapped in the world's iciest regions?

Earlier this month, we had a terrifying answer to this question - anthrax. Unlike in The X-Files though, it didn't take a team of scientists to unleash the deadly bacteria. All it took was global warming.

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The Siberian anthrax outbreak

While climate change skeptics continue to deny the obvious reality unfolding before them, the world continues to experience record high temperatures. This July was the hottest month since we started properly keeping track of temperatures in 1880.

In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), July was the fifteenth straight month in which global heat records were broken. This streak is a record all on its own, though probably not one we should be celebrating.

This warming has not spared even the world's most frigid regions. And, in Siberia, the world's coldest inhabited place, we found out exactly what can happen when a region's natural climate changes.

Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

This summer has been particularly brutal in Siberia with temperatures in some regions over 10 degrees above normal. The result was that the permafrost started to thaw, revealing things long since buried. Among the permafrost's secrets was organic matter.

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Some of this organic matter, more specifically a 7-decade-old reindeer carcass, contained long dormant spores of anthrax. Within a week, one boy had succumbed to anthrax. At least 90 people are confirmed to be infected. Over 2,300 reindeer have died. The region is now under quarantine.

But the outbreak poses a bigger question - what other threats are lurking, buried in ice but just waiting to be freed by man-made climate change?

A looming smallpox threat

Anthrax is a disease caused by a bacteria. While high temperatures are enough to kill most bacteria and destroy viruses, low temperatures do not. The anthrax-causing bacteria, for example, doesn't die when frozen. Instead, it forms spores that can lay dormant, evidently for decades, coming back to life when exposed to more favourable conditions.

But this bacteria is not the only pathogen that can do this. Viruses could also potentially survive these frigid conditions. The worry now is that centuries-old graveyards filled with victims of smallpox, graveyards previously covered in permafrost, could now also be exposed. Considering the current anthrax outbreak is believed to stem from shallow grave sites dug for reindeer that died of an anthrax outbreak, the reemergence of smallpox is not unimaginable.

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Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Already, Russian scientists have visited previously frozen grave sites of smallpox victims. While they haven't found the virus itself, they have found DNA fragments of it.

But graves, if deep enough, will still hold these diseases at bay. The problem though is when victims of deadly diseases do not end up buried. The nomads of Siberia, for example, place their dead in coffins on exposed hillsides. These are eventually covered by the ice, seemingly lost forever. Until a heatwave like the current one exposes them, potentially freeing bacteria and viruses.

The devil you don't know

While the devils we know are scary enough, the devils we don't are even more terrifying. More than just the diseases we know that could be lurking in the frost, are the ones we don't have a clue about.

Recently, scientists discovered a giant virus preserved in ice that remained infectious even after 30,000 years. While the virus wasn't capable of infecting humans, it readily infected amoebae. This virus was found in Siberia, just in case you were starting to feel a sense of complacency or security.

Recently, scientists discovered a giant virus that remained infectious even after 30,000 years.

Scientists speculate that other viruses, potentially older and more threatening to mankind, could be lurking deeper within the permafrost. These are all viruses that we do not know a thing about, meaning that in an outbreak, we wouldn't have a clue how to combat, or even diagnose them in the initial stages.

While the current level of global warming may not thaw the permafrost enough to release these, drilling and mining in these frozen regions could one day release a virus that could wipe out thousands.

Mercury rising

Now, while pathogens give us a new climate change fear to worry about, the more conventional effects like melting ice sheets are also a major problem. Not just in the long term as we've been lead to believe either, but right now.

As the mercury rises, the sea ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic melts. Ironically though, this rise in mercury is causing mercury trapped in the Arctic and Antarctic ice to be released into the sea. Just this past week, a Swedish research expedition set out to measure the Arctic's mercury levels. The last such expedition in 2008, showed these levels were elevated.

Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

"Together with other toxic pollutants mercury tends to accumulate in both the Arctic and Antarctic. When the sea ice melts, there is good reason to suspect that a lot of toxins currently frozen in the sea ice will be released," said Katarina Gårdfeldt, the expedition's research director.

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As this mercury enters the water, it immediately becomes part of the food chain, affecting organisms as small as plankton and as large as whales. As it travels up the food chain, the mercury only gets more concentrated and deadly, eventually making its way back to the human body through our food. In humans, it is an almost lethal neurotoxin.

What's ironic is that the mercury found in the Arctic makes its way there largely as suspended air particles. Caused as the by-products of coal powerplants and gold mining, they can remain suspended in the atmosphere for long periods of time, affecting nothing and no one. This mercury however, oxidises on contact with bromine, causing it to get heavier and drop out of the atmosphere. What is the cause of this bromine? Melting sea ice.

First published: 19 August 2016, 12:54 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.