In the summer of 2016, a heatwave washed over Europe, thawing permafrost in the North. In the Arctic soil of Siberia, bacteria began stirring—anthrax, to be specific. The thawing, shifting ground exposed a reindeer carcass buried and frozen in 1941. The anthrax spores from the body found their way into the top layer of soil and the water nearby, before being picked up by thousands of migratory reindeer grazing in the area. Over two thousand reindeer soon contracted the deadly bacteria and passed it along to the nomadic Nenets peoples who travel alongside the reindeer and depend upon them for food. By the end of August, a 12-year-old boy had died and at least 115 others had been hospitalized.
The current coronavirus pandemic, despite likely originating with an animal-to-human crossover far from the Arctic Circle, has come at a particularly weighty moment for infectious disease. As the Arctic warms twice as fast as the rest of the world, its ground is starting to thaw. With that thaw, bacteria and viruses once buried in the permafrost could increasingly emerge from a long hibernation. At the same time, the Arctic is seeing more traffic than ever, with sea routes opening up and natural resource exploitation growing in the region. Just as microbes begin re-emerging, they have more opportunities than ever to encounter people and animals. Read more at The New Republic.
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