August 04, 2016

"What was once considered a future theoretical possibility — a re-animated deadly bacterium emerging from the permafrost — is now a reality."

Pacific Standard: Throughout July, temperatures in northern Siberia have soared as high as 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) during what’s typically the warmest part of the year. By Eric Holthaus

'It’s unknown exactly how the disease emerged — possibly via a thawed reindeer carcass or human remains at a crumbling, above-ground cemetery that’s typical of the region. Russia has sent troops trained for biological warfare to help establish a quarantine in what’s become the first anthrax outbreak in the region since 1941.

'As my colleague Francie Diep wrote on Tuesday, this is an “apocalyptic-sounding chain of events” and the initial news coverage surely capitalized on that tone. But what’s happening in Siberia — while scary! — will not, by itself, threaten the viability of human civilization. In fact, it was expected.

'Scientists have been warning for years that melting permafrost might release ancient pathogens, frozen for millennia or longer in northern soils. Over the last decade or so, bacteria have been discovered alive in Alaskan permafrost at temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees Celsius, and in permafrost layers as old as three million years in Siberia. Although the vast majority of known bacteria are harmless, we don’t yet know what’s buried up there, or how dangerous it might be to humans.'

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