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Volume:7, Number:45
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The Reawakening

As Earth’s climate warms, melting ice is releasing bacteria buried for thousands of years and diseases hidden underground are waking up

The BBC reported on May 4 that climate change is melting permafrost soils frozen for thousands of years. But that is not the only thing happening. As the soils melt, they are releasing ancient, once-dormant viruses and bacteria that are springing back to life.

In August 2016, in a remote part of the Siberian tundra called the Yamal Peninsula, in the Arctic Circle, a 12-year-old boy died and at least 20 people were hospitalized after contracting anthrax, a serious infectious disease caused by bacteria. Theory has it that more than 75 years ago, a reindeer infected with anthrax died and its frozen carcass was trapped beneath a layer of frozen soil, or permafrost. It stayed there until a heat wave in the summer of 2016 caused the permafrost to thaw. This exposed the reindeer corpse, released infectious anthrax into nearby water and soil, and then into the food supply. Over 2,000 reindeer grazing nearby became infected, which then led to the small number of human cases. Investigations into the anthrax outbreak last August also sparked concern that smallpox could return, as Siberia's melting permafrost exposes ancient graves.

While the last known case of the deadly disease was in Somalia in 1977, Russian scientists investigating the anthrax outbreak found the virus's DNA in corpses that were once buried in the frozen ground, the Independent reported. A major epidemic of smallpox occurred in Siberia in the 1890s, killing up to 40 percent of the population in one town. The bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost soil, on the banks of the Kolyma River. Now, about 120 years later, Kolyma's floodwaters have started eroding the banks. The melting of permafrost has quickened this erosion. It is feared the anthrax outbreak will not be an isolated case. In normal situations, superficial permafrost layers about 50 centimeters deep melt every summer. But global warming is now gradually exposing older permafrost layers. Bacteria can remain alive in frozen permafrost soil for very long periods of time - possibly as long as a million years.

The temperature in the Arctic Circle is rising about three times faster than in the rest of the world. Other infectious agents could be released as the ice and permafrost melt, said evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France, the BBC reported. As humans and animals have been buried in permafrost for centuries, it is possible that other infectious agents could be released. Scientists have discovered intact 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska's tundra. Smallpox and the bubonic plague are also likely buried in Siberia. In a 2005 study, NASA scientists successfully revived bacteria that had been encased in a frozen pond in Alaska for 32,000 years.

Two years later, scientists revived an eight-million-year-old bacterium that had been lying dormant beneath the surface of a glacier in the Beacon and Mullins valleys of Antarctica. In the same study, bacteria were also revived from ice that was over 100,000 years old.

The BBC pointed out that not all bacteria can come back to life after being frozen in permafrost. Anthrax bacteria can do so because they form spores, which are extremely hardy and can survive frozen for more than a century. Some other bacteria which can form spores - and therefore survive in permafrost - are tetanus and Clostridium botulinum, the pathogen responsible for botulism, a rare illness that can cause paralysis and even prove fatal. Some fungi and viruses can also survive in permafrost for a long time. Global warming does not have to directly melt permafrost to pose a threat. The melting of Arctic sea ice has made the north shore of Siberia more easily accessible by sea. As a result, industrial exploitation, including mining for gold and minerals, and drilling for oil and natural gas, is now becoming profitable.

In February 2017, NASA scientists announced that they had found 10-50,000-year-old microbes inside crystals in a Mexican mine. Even older bacteria have been found in the Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico, 1,000ft (305m) underground. These microbes, which are resistant to natural antibiotics, have not seen the surface for over 4 million years.

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