Boiler alert! Summer is coming to the ‘cursed fields’, where anthrax lurks
The thawing of permafrost could release ancient plagues buried for thousands of years
When authorities in Yakutsk invited participants in a youth government initiative to brainstorm ideas for an empty lot in the centre last year, it seemed like a smart way to get rid of an eyesore.
But the project was held up after residents and officials raised concerns that the site could hold anthrax spores preserved in permanently frozen soil.
Although specialists eventually said it was safe to build a skate park on the lot, which once held a laboratory making an anthrax serum, the incident raised further questions about the ancient diseases known to be lurking in the permafrost – and whether they could be unlocked by global warming.
“Anthrax spores can stay alive in the permafrost for up to 2,500 years. That’s scary given the thawing of animal burial grounds from the 19th century,” said Boris Kershengolts, a Yakutsk biologist who studies northern climates.
“When they are taken out of the permafrost and put into our temperatures, they revive.”
Yakutsk is Earth’s coldest city, with temperatures that can drop below -60ºC in winter.
But it is seeing the start of warming that could lead to the destruction of infrastructure and the revival of dormant diseases, even as more people arrive to man new military bases and oil and gas facilities.
At an Arctic forum in St Petersburg last week, Vladimir Putin called the fact that Russia was warming two-and-a-half times faster than the rest of the world an “alarming trend”.
At the same time, he announced a new Arctic development strategy and promised to increase investment with tax breaks and subsidised icebreaker escorts through the Northeast Passage.
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 metres deep.Now these icy bonds are beginning to break. In many places the active layer, the top few metres that thaw and refreeze each year, is thawing earlier and to a greater depth.The permafrost in central Yakutia shrinks by 1cm to 5cm a year and more in urban areas, according to the Melnikov Permafrost Institute.
Meanwhile, precipitation has increased in 70% of Yakutia since 1966. That thickens the blanket of snow that insulates the ground from the cold air, exacerbating the thaw.
In Yakutsk, where most buildings stand on 8m to 12m stilts driven through the active layer into more stable permafrost, many walls are visibly cracking as foundations grow unsteady.
In the nearby town of Khatassy, locals have called on the authorities to save six houses on the verge of toppling 9m into the Lena river as the degradation of the permafrost speeds up erosion.Permafrost thawing has also caused thousands of oil and gas pipeline breaks in Russia, Greenpeace has said.And most alarmingly, it has led to at least one disease epidemic.
In the West, anthrax is best known as the powder mailed to news outlets after the September 11 attacks, but here it is called “Siberian plague” for ravaging livestock and people there in previous centuries.
Caused by a bacteria that can occur naturally in the soil, anthrax typically infects animals through the plants or water they consume, and has led to periodic outbreaks throughout history.
Humans can similarly become ill by breathing, drinking, eating or coming into contact with the bacteria’s spores through an open cut, often developing blisters with a telltale black centre.
If complications such as fever, vomiting and bloody diarrhoea are not treated with antibiotics in time, they can lead to death.
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 35ºC in 2016, an estimated 2,000 reindeer died and 96 people were hospitalised.
A 12-year-old boy died after eating infected raw venison.
Experts 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 15ºC, creating conditions for their reproduction.
In previous centuries, residents of the far north did not want to waste scarce firewood burning carcasses and instead interred them in thousands of mass “cattle graves” scraped into the permafrost.
Nomadic herders simply left reindeer were they fell and thereafter avoided the “cursed fields”.
Today, cattle graves locations are kept secret since they are closed to the public. “Why increase the phobia about these animal burial grounds?” Kershengolts explained.
More than a third of the 13,885 cattle burial grounds in Russia did not meet sanitary norms, a 2009 report found. As permafrost thaws, water flows through it more easily, carrying spores to potentially infect new victims.
When Vasily Seliverstov, an anthrax expert, arrived after the Yamal outbreak, he encountered scatterings of dead reindeer lying “in a chain” along several miles of the afflicted herd’s migration route.
He blamed that summer’s drought. While precipitation is on the rise elsewhere, it’s actually decreasing in the northernmost tundra zone.
Anthrax spores were washed into the silt of one of the small lakes that dot the swampy tundra, Seliverstov believes. When the water dried up, reindeer may have grazed on anthrax-infected grass that grew in its place.
“In the cursed fields, with all these lakes, the probability of animals being infected is pretty high during a dry summer,” he said.The threat of anthrax spreading from cattle graves must be better monitored, he added.Yakutia has more such sites than any other region.A 2011 study found 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.Some fear that those involved in Yakutia’s woolly mammoth tusk trade could pick up “paleo-pathogens” – prehistoric diseases that humans may have never encountered – after live bacteria was found in mammoth remains frozen for 20,000 years.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)