Thursday 22 August 2019

Ancient anthrax spores return to plague the Arctic

“Anthrax spores can stay alive in the permafrost for up to 2,500 years” Stock image: PA
“Anthrax spores can stay alive in the permafrost for up to 2,500 years” Stock image: PA

Alec Luhn

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 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 -60C 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, Vladimir Putin called the fact that Russia is warming two-and-a-half times faster than the rest of the world an "alarming trend".

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 feet deep.

Now these icy bonds are beginning to break.

In many places the active layer, the top few feet that thaws and refreezes 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.

Here anthrax is called "Siberian plague" for ravaging livestock and people 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 become ill by breathing, drinking, eating or coming into contact with the bacteria's spores through an open cut, often developing blisters with a black centre.

If complications like 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 35C in 2016, an estimated 2,000 reindeer died and 96 people were hospitalised. A boy (12) died after eating infected raw venison.

Experts concluded 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".

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.

Irish Independent

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