Tuesday, 16 August 2016
The Ends of the World
Last month, though, the environment changed. In what the director of Russia’s Institute of Global Climate called ‘a colossal, unprecedented anomaly’, a heatwave inside the Arctic circle took Yamal’s temperature up to 34° celsius, The heat began to melt the icy ground – the permafrost – and things which had been frozen for decades began to thaw. Among those things were the bodies of reindeer which had died more than seven decades ago; and among those bodies were the spores of the deadly bacterial disease anthrax.
The anthrax spread among the local reindeer population, killing more than 2000 of them, and then jumped to humans. One boy died; unconfirmed reports suggest his grandmother died too. Then the Russian government took action. Doctors and soldiers poured into the territory and began a programme of mass vaccinations and antibiotic treatment which seems to have stemmed, so far, the further spread of the disease. At the time of writing, hundreds of Russian troops are burning infected reindeer carcasses across the region, and a 12,000km exclusion zone is being disinfected to ensure no spores remain in the soil. According the region’s governor, ‘it is unlikely that anything will grow there ever again.’
Across the world, the ice is melting at rates much faster than predicted even five years ago, and as it does so it is bringing buried things to the surface. Viktor Maleyev, deputy chief of Russia’s Central Research Institute of Epidemiology, warns that the smallpox virus could be released again from thawing graves; so too could recently discovered viruses from extinct and as-yet-frozen mammoths. In Greenland, researchers fear that melting ice may lead to the release of underground toxic waste, buried during the Cold War.