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The Dangers Lurking in Permafrost

The many unexpected ways climate change can threaten people around the world.

By Francie Diep


A reindeer in Sweden. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In Siberia, 90 people have been hospitalized and one 12-year-old boy has died from anthrax, the BBC reports. In addition, more than 2,300 reindeer have died in the outbreak, believed to have been caused by a heat wave that melted permafrost, which in turn exposed the carcass of an anthrax-infected reindeer to the 12-year-old boy.

Climate change may have contributed to the heat wave, which has brought temperatures up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Herders will have to avoid the area, located in a district called Yamalo-Nenets, for decades to come, NBC News reports.

This apocalyptic-sounding chain of events highlights the strange ways in which climate change can wreck havoc on people’s health. Climate change is expected to increase the rates of disease in much of the world, but how that happens in any specific location is a different — and often fascinatingly gross — story.

In some climates where wildfires are natural, such as parts of Australia and the American West, scientists expect climate change will make fires bigger, hotter, and more frequent. That will lead to more people getting injured and dying in fires. It will also create more harmful air pollution. One study estimated air pollution from fires, which can linger for days to months, already kills 300,000 people a year worldwide.

This apocalyptic-sounding chain of events highlights the strange ways in which climate change can wreck havoc on people’s health.

In the Arctic, thawing permafrost is expected to unlock various infectious dangers besides long-dead reindeer. Inuit villages in Nunavik often deposit their waste in small aboveground ponds, Canadian researchers reported from a visit in 2003 and 2004. Nunavik villagers, meanwhile, frequently get their drinking water straight from local lakes, rivers, and brooks, which the researchers found were cleaner than the chlorinated water people had delivered daily and kept in tanks near their houses. Melting permafrost could allow the contents of wastewater ponds to spread through the ground, contaminating villagers’ wild drinking sources, the Canadian research team warned in their paper, published in the journal Arctic in 2007.

In Arctic villages that have plumbing, softening permafrost could disrupt the pipes, exposing the water to bacteria and contaminants in the ground, a separate group of researchers cautioned in a paper published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2008.

Interestingly, global warming might also improve health for some people in certain parts of the world. Where climate change makes extreme cold less likely, it could mean fewer people die of exposure, but such deaths are already rare. Climate change could also make it easier to grow food in some regions, or chase out disease-causing pests. But “these positive effects will be increasingly outweighed, worldwide, by the magnitude and severity of the negative effects of climate change,” according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on health.

Meanwhile, Siberia may see more cases of global warming-resurrected anthrax in the future. Around the turn of the 20th century, herders in the Russian North endured frequent anthrax outbreaks that killed 1.5 million reindeer, two members of the Russian Academy of Sciences reported in a paper published in 2011. To prevent the disease’s spread, people buried their dead animals — but 4,961 such burial grounds “do not meet federal veterinary and sanitary standards,” the Russian scientists write.

It’s unknown how many of those grounds are also at risk of melting with global warming, which can have different effects in different regions. But the Russian Academy of Sciences researchers recommended vaccinating Siberian livestock and indefinitely monitoring sites where people have died of anthrax outbreaks in the past. A mass reindeer vaccination campaign is underway in Yamalo-Nenets, local officials told NBC News.