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The Monster In The Ice - The dormant threat of diseases in permafrost

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

For centuries, we have told tales of monsters waiting in the shadows, lurking in the darkness, just waiting for the right time. Was this foresight? Because the World has a monster that is waiting and watching as we increase the timeline towards its unleashing.

In the ice awaits the most fear-inducing of terrors; the unknown.

There are diseases hidden in the permafrost and they are waking up.

A 2014 study conducted by Legendre, et al, found Pithovirus sibericum isolated in a radiocarbon-dated sample that was more than 30,000 years old. This eludes to the possible presence of viruses that could unleash future pandemics or revive old ones. The Pithovirus sibericum is not known to affect humans or animals, that we know of, however, this finding led to worrying results. The sample collected in 2000 showed substantial similarities between the Pithovirus and that of other large DNA viruses, many of which are infectious to humans and animals, substantiating the possibility that other infectious diseases may be laying wait for their encasing permafrost layers to become exposed and melt.

This possibility became a reality in 2016, when a 12-year old boy died.

Between 1897 and 1925 over 1.5 million deer in Russian North died following a mass infection of anthrax. Anthrax occurs throughout the world in soils and is extremely resilient, capable of remaining dormant for 105 years in permafrost (Revich & Podolnaya, 2011). Through grazing, animals such as sheep, cows, deer and goats can become host to the bacteria. This bacteria transfers and infects humans upon them eating meat from infected animals or drinking from infected waterways, inhaling anthrax spores or coming into contact with infected skin sores among other processes. Once infected, sepsis can occur, and the spinal cord and brain become covered in fluid, leading to haemorrhagic meningitis, and death (World Health Organisation, 2008). In Russia there are 13,885 cattle burial grounds, of which, 4,961 do not meet Federal veterinary and sanitary standards (Revich & Podolnaya, 2011). Despite this, many farmers still encourage cattle grazing in areas of high infection risk. Global warming has bought about releasing long dormant diseases, and in the case of the 12 year old boy, it is only a glimpse of what is to come. Following an anomalous heat in Yamal, erosion led to the revealing of many diseased burial sites, which infected the waterways used by living cattle, and the communities around the area. The 12 year old boy, and 71 other nomadic herders (41 of which were children) became infected, according to a news report. The boy died, along with 2300 reindeer, following gastrointestinal infection of anthrax.

In 1918, the Spanish Influenza infected approximately 500,000,000 people Worldwide. In 1918 the population was approximately 1.6 billion, meaning the Spanish Flu infected around 30% of the Worlds population. The CDC (2019) estimate around 50 million people died. In 1951, a microbiology PhD student ventured into Alaska to collect samples of influenza from undisturbed burial sites of inuit people who had died from the Spanish Flu. At a depth of only 2 metres, the bodies were exhumated and biopsies began. Unfortunately, the study proved unsuccessful. In 1995, another search occurred and influenza fragments were found within a frozen lung sample of a 1918 Spanish Flu victim in Alaska (Taubenberger et al, 2007). The woman had decomposed slower, likely due to the fatty tissue surrounding her organs which deterred thawing during short periods of melting permafrost. The tissues yielded small fragments of influenza which allowed coding of the sequence over a period of 9 years. This exhumation and sampling proved that the Spanish Influenza DNA continues to lay dormant in the bodies of those infected, sealed within the permafrost. So what is permafrost exactly?

Permafrost is ground that remains frozen for two years or more. The thawing occurs from what is knows as the active layer, generally a few feet but up to 13 feet of dirt and plant detritus warming that is on top of the permafrost. The relationship between soil moisture and vegetation affect the thermal properties, and within anaerobic conditions in particular where no water or oxygen is available. This layer releases carbon from the roots and microbes in the soil. These microbes continue to break matter down into carbon dioxide or methane. The roots of the plants become active, as the permafrost thaws and as the roots deepen, the active layer penetrates further, resulting in further CO2 and CH4 release and breaking of the permafrost layer.

Permafrost is thought to cover around 24% of the exposed landmass of the Northern Hemisphere (Earth Institute, 2018) which is the equivalent of 9 million m2 and can reach depths of 4,900 ft. Through modelling, it is estimated that permafrost will disappear on 16 to 24% of the landscape in 80 years time (Pastick, et al,. 2015).

The permafrost degrades due to a range of factors, from an increase in temperature to wetter climates and increased vegetation productivity. A consequence of this change is drying of soil, leading to water impoundment and subsidence, changing the landscape of neighbouring areas. More worryingly, however, is the stored carbon within the permafrost and frozen plant matter, which is estimated to hold around 1.4 trillion tons (T.Schuur, 2019) of C and is released upon thawing. To provide context, we face massive global warming from the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, at a comparatively tiny 11 billion tons. 65 – 70% of this dormant carbon store is within the surface layer, between 0 and 3m, and therefore, most susceptible to melt.

The Arctic is currently warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet in part due to the reduced reflectivity (or albedo) from less ice, and if action isn’t taken soon, we will see a massive release in this greenhouse gas, along with other pandemics. In their report of permafrost observation, Romanovsky and Cable, (2014) identified a rise of temperature by 3° C over the past few decades, with this increase occurring at depths of 65 feet.

And it isn’t just carbon. There is an estimated 1,656,000 tonnes of mercury within the permafrost and polar ice, which as it thaws, enters the water and increases the mercury content of all life forms within it. As it cannot be removed, the mercury content biomagnifies along the food chain, and onto the plates of fish eaters, humans included (Schuster et al, 2018)

There are various consequences of melting permafrost, which we intend to bring to light, but one that we feel the weight of in particular in 2020, is the release of other diseases.

In 1970, smallpox was declared eradicated by the World Health Organisation. Despite this, researches have found DNA dormant within two human corpses contained within permafrost encased wooded graves in Siberia, according to a study conducted by Biagini et al. They suggest in their report, that the fragments could be linked to the epidemic of 1714.

Hidden within Pleistocene ice from a permafrost tunnel in Alaska was the Carnobacterium pleistocenium bacteria. Whilst there are 9 variations of carnobacteria, the one extracted is not well documented. We do understand however from the other variations, that this bacteria is most similar to Carnobacterium sp. Which can lead to food spoilage and adverse health effects. During the study by Pikuta et al, (2005) they isolated the Carbobacterium pleistocenium, named Strain FTR1 from an ice core sample and kept it in a frozen state during transportation but upon closer inspection and thawing was identified as being alive. Whilst this threat does not seem substantial, identifying that bacteria and diseases can survive for this long within permafrost is.

It was identified that bacteria that can form spores, such as tetanus and botulinum (a paralysis inducing bacteria) can survive in permafrost, reanimating upon thawing.

We know that animal and human remains can be preserved in ice, and begs the question; if a Neanderthal died some 40,000 years ago, could thawing of their preservation state lead to the release of any diseases that killed them?

Melting of ice also drives wildlife towards more populated areas. As discussed in the Arctic Infectious Disease meeting in Copenhagen in 2010, there is a range of infectious diseases which are dangerous to humans within many animals hosts. These included rabies within foxes, alveola hydatid disease in rodents and brucellosis in bears, all of which are consumed in some way by humans, whether from water sources or from meat. Additionally, the increase in temperature sees an increase in transmitting agents, such as mosquitoes and horseflies. With this influx, the potential to become exposed to these pathogens increases also (Revich, 2012).

Increasing temperatures also affect current diseases, in particular, the Arctic host-parasite systems. For example, it has been studied that a rise in temperature would increase the abundance of the Umingmakstrongylus pallikuukensis larvae, and reduce the stage time required for development, leading to a potential increase in abundance and disease outbreak (Kutz, 2005). Also known as lungworm it affects muskoxen and was first identified in 1988 when a radio-collared muskoxen was found dead. In an unpublished survey, 100% of the adult bulls in the Inuvik region in 2003 to 2004 showed evidence of infection from the lungworm.

The above only outline a tiny portion of what we believe to be waiting for us in the permafrost. The fear is within the unknown. And we cannot lay rested with the option of antibiotics for future diseases that are released from the ice.

Resistance through antibiotics is a common feature, both in current and ancient bacteria. In fact, it has been identified that antibiotic resistance is ancient, highly diverse and globally distributed (D’Costa, et al, 2006). However, studying these ancient antibiotic resistance mechanisms could provide insight into them, allowing us to prepare when necessary, as best we can.

We are unfortunately a species of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ It is common to hear responses that suggest we are not affected by the melting ice, but those that dig deeper will find a whole host of frightening monsters lying dormant.

We have to make changes now, or the consequences will ripple like melted ice, through future generations.

Thanks for reading

The Climate Corner

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Arctic Program, 2019. Permafrost And The Global Carbon Cycle.

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Cho, R., 2020. How The Warming Arctic Affects Us All. [online] State of the Planet. Available at: <> [Accessed 16 June 2020].

D'Costa, V., McGrann, K., Hughes, D. and Wright, G., 2006. Sampling the Antibiotic Resistome. Science, 311(5759), pp.374-377.

Kutz, S., Hoberg, E., Nishi, J. and Polley, L., 2002. Development of the muskox lungworm, Umingmakstrongylus pallikuukensis (Protostrongylidae), in gastropods in the Arctic. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 80(11), pp.1977-1985.

Legendre, M., Bartoli, J., Shmakova, L., Jeudy, S., Labadie, K., Adrait, A., Lescot, M., Poirot, O., Bertaux, L., Bruley, C., Coute, Y., Rivkina, E., Abergel, C. and Claverie, J., 2014. Thirty-thousand-year-old distant relative of giant icosahedral DNA viruses with a pandoravirus morphology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(11), pp.4274-4279.

Pastick, N., Jorgenson, M., Wylie, B., Nield, S., Johnson, K. and Finley, A., 2015. Distribution of near-surface permafrost in Alaska: Estimates of present and future conditions. Remote Sensing of Environment, 168, pp.301-315.

Pikuta, E., Marsic, D., Bej, A., Tang, J., Krader, P. and Hoover, R., 2005. Carnobacterium pleistocenium sp. nov., a novel psychrotolerant, facultative anaerobe isolated from permafrost of the Fox Tunnel in Alaska. International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, 55(1), pp.473-478.

Revich, B. and Podolnaya, M., 2011. Thawing of permafrost may disturb historic cattle burial grounds in East Siberia. Global Health Action, 4(1), p.8482.

Romanovsky, V., Cable, W., Marchenko, S. and Panda, S., 2014. Distributed Permafrost Observation Network in Western Alaska: the First Results. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16 June 2020].

Schuster, P., Schaefer, K., Aiken, G., Antweiler, R., Dewild, J., Gryziec, J., Gusmeroli, A., Hugelius, G., Jafarov, E., Krabbenhoft, D., Liu, L., Herman‐Mercer, N., Mu, C., Roth, D., Schaefer, T., Striegl, R., Wickland, K. and Zhang, T., 2018. Permafrost Stores a Globally Significant Amount of Mercury. Geophysical Research Letters, 45(3), pp.1463-1471.

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