Anthrax-Spewing Zombie Deer Are the Least of Your Warming Planet Worries
Climate change is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. In northern Russia, you get anthrax.
QuickTake Climate ChangeConditions that are melting Arctic permafrost there recently thawed the carcasses of deer felled by anthrax some 75 years ago, when World War II raged. Warmer temperatures then reactivated the infectious disease, which can survive in hibernation for decades. Dozens of people have been hospitalized, half of them children, with eight confirmed cases and one death. Making matters worse, a heatwave combined with the anthrax outbreak may have killed more than 2,300 deer—new ones.
As apocalyptic as this development may seem, it’s perhaps the least worrisome byproduct of warming near the top of the earth, which is heating up the fastest. Retreating ice and softening permafrost, both in the Arctic and elsewhere, have already begun to yield other curiosities and dangers, some of which can do a lot more damage than a pile of dead deer:
Frozen cemeteries give up their dead
Twenty-five years ago, during a foray into the Ötztal Alps between Austria and Italy, two German hikers came across the remains of a less-fortunate peer. They assumed he died within recent times, but Ötzi, as the cadaver was nicknamed, turned out to be more than 5,000 years old. He was embedded in ice through the rise of human civilization. Since then, bodies that are hundreds of years old, or more, have turned up in northern British Columbia, Bolivia, and the Russian steppe. Melting ice has uncovered soldiers and airplane pilots who met their fates in more recent decades.
Climate change may be the best thing to happen to anthropologists in years. For the rest of us? Not so much.
This place is a mammoth dump
The annals of climate change are filled with items too small to affect the big picture, but memorable nonetheless: shrinking sheep, nicer spiders, and even increases in kidney stones. Then there’s mammoth dung.
Humanity isn’t the first mammal to roam the northern tundra, nor the biggest. But people may be the most discreet with our bodily functions. Not so the woolly mammoth: In pockets of permafrost are their digestive remains. Nine years ago, a widely circulated news report raised the specter of ancient dung-driven emissions. The research community hasn’t returned to the topic as a major risk factor. Yet.
Bacteria have plenty of reheated planet to eat
Thawing, century-old deer that spew anthrax sound like the beginning of a Hollywood zombie thriller. But a bigger, less-exciting horror film is also playing out as permafrost becomes sometimes-frost.
Scientists in 2014 discovered what may turn out to be a true workhorse of the warming world: bacteria that eat through thawing soil. These organisms, including Methanoflorens stordalenmirensis, gobble up nutrients and metabolize them into methane, a heat-trapping gas. Some of it breaks down into carbon dioxide, which while much less damaging to the atmosphere (molecule-per-molecule), sticks around for much, much longer.
A methane-burping bacterial colony here or there never hurt anybody. But widespread Arctic melting may serve these microbes a feast of geologic proportions. And that means potentially dangerous amounts of methane pouring into an already toasty atmosphere. Permafrost stores about double the carbon that the atmosphere does. The better the bacteria do, the more carbon joins the sky, the warmer earth becomes. Repeat.
Last year, researchers based mostly in the U.S. recommended stronger monitoring of methane and CO2 emissions from the Arctic. But there’s some good news: They say “increased permafrost carbon emissions in a warming climate are more likely to be gradual and sustained rather than abrupt and massive,” which may be the ultimate example of cold comfort.
Walking a methane minefield
Before the anthrax scare, Siberia's Yamal Peninsula attracted scientific and media attention because pockets of methane gas began spontaneously erupting, leaving craters a couple of hundred feet across and just as deep. Russian scientists think the craters are caused by underground gas leaking up toward the surface through fissures. With warming temperatures, the methane expands until it blows its top.
Craters formed in the last few years have begun to fill with water on their way to becoming the first new lakes of the Human Epoch.