What Happens When You Thaw Anthrax?

A large majority of climate change scientists agree that the warming of the Earth is already affecting humans and wildlife. Many news articles focus on how the temperature will directly affect wildlife habitats. For example, polar bears’ habitats are melting at a faster rate than ever before (1). However, BBC released a comprehensive article explaining how climate change is also indirectly working to wreak havoc in the form of re-emerging diseases.

An image of permafrost in Svalbard, Norway. It looks like ordinary soil, but it is below 0 Celsius and is completely frozen. 

Permafrost is permanently frozen soil classified solely on its temperature. For terrain to be categorized as permafrost, it has to be at or below 0 Celsius for at least two years (2). The permafrost acts as a preserver of viruses and microbes because of the low temperatures, anaerobic environment, and lack of light. As the temperatures rise, however, this permafrost can thaw. Unfortunately, ancient viruses that froze with the soil are also capable of thawing.

One drastic example is from August 2016 when a young boy died from an anthrax infection that also hospitalized twenty other people in Siberia. The source of the anthrax was believed to have been from a dead reindeer that had recently thawed within the warming permafrost. Anthrax persists as a spore that can be reactivated in the human body, much like tetanus and Clostridium botulinum. For this reason, the pathogenic agents emerge quite unharmed (3).

Scientists are concerned about previously eradicated diseases making a comeback, such as the 1918 Spanish flu virus, a form of H1N1. During this epidemic, corpses were often buried in large plots of land, shallower than a proper grave should have been dug. RNA fragments of the virus were found in the Alaskan tundra, so there is a possibility for a comeback if climate change is not addressed in time.

Recently, the United States of America withdrew from the Paris Agreement, which aimed to unify the global response to climate change by setting a limit to the yearly temperature rise (4). Though President Trump cited job loss and a hit to our economy as reasons to withdraw (5), he did not seem to be considering other factors, such as the possibility of the re-emergence of previously eradicated diseases. I believe that America plays too heavy of a role in influencing other countries, so this move will not only diminish America’s efforts to combat climate change, but also many other countries.



  1. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/19/climate-change-is-single-biggest-threat-to-polar-bear-survival
  2. https://www.wunderground.com/climate/permafrost.asp
  3. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up
  4. http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php
  5. http://www.businessinsider.com/fact-check-trump-reasons-for-leaving-paris-agreement-2017-6/#job-losses-1

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