It’s a well-known fact that I don’t buy into the whole global warming thing but it’s a scientific fact that there have been periods over the last two decades where the frozen poles of our planet have periodically heated up beyond their usual temperature range.
This has nothing to do with global warming or climate change if you prefer that term. The earth is dynamic, it goes through cycles of heating and cooling, drought and flood. Sometimes this happens all over the planet at the same time, sometimes it happens unequally in the two hemispheres and sometimes just a couple of geographic locations are affected. This heating at the poles is just part of business as usual for Mother Earth. The planet has behaved like this throughout its existence and there is no logical reason to think that’s going to change.
There is something we should consider though. When there is a melt at the poles the permafrost is affected, and whatever is in the permafrost can, frozen for sometimes thousands of years, resurface.
In Early August this year an outbreak of anthrax sickened 72 people in the Yamal area of northern Russia. One child died and one adult died in the outbreak. Last seen in the area in 1941 the latest outbreak also killed over 2000 reindeer, affecting the livelihood of dozens of nomadic herding families that travel the area.
Anthrax spores are hardy…very hardy. They can lie dormant for centuries and then, when exposed to air, they awaken to wreak havoc on anyone coming into contact with them. This is what scientists believe happened in Yamal.
Dead animals and the bodies of herders that have died over the years are all likely to be exposed if the permafrost melts where they are buried. If those people had a disease, such as anthrax, plague or even smallpox this could be transmitted to those coming into contact with the body. A far back as 2008 this was a concern for doctors and scientists alike, when a headless body was recovered from the tundra.
Other bodies have also given rise to such scares:
Archaeologists halted work in the London crypt Spitalfields in the mid-1980s after finding smallpox scars on a corpse, and a librarian from Santa Fe, N.M., was vaccinated after finding a smallpox scab in a Civil War medical book. In these cases, the virus was no longer viable.
But a construction worker in the United Kingdom did contract the disease while demolishing a building that had housed smallpox victims, and researchers in Holland found a live virus in a 13-year-old scab. (source)
Smallpox is the disease that most people dread making a comeback. Boris Kershengolts is the deputy director for research at the Institute for Biological Problems of the Cryolithozone in Yakutsk. He is in no doubt that infected bodies in the permafrost could, if they were thawed out, infect the living. He said:
“Can these processes repeat themselves? Of course they can. Back in the 1890s, a major epidemic of smallpox occurred – there was a town where up to 40 per cent of the population died. Naturally, the bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost soil, on the bank of the Kolyma River”. (source)
Kolyma’s floodwaters have started eroding the banks of the river and is speeding the thaw of the permafrost. Some graves, which aren’t deep due to the impossible digging conditions, have already been exposed. Some of the bodies bore signs of sores that fit with smallpox. No active virus has yet been found but DNA of the disease has been isolated.
The other problem with permafrost thaw is methane. Plant matter rotted hundreds sometimes thousands of years ago is present in huge amounts in the tundra regions. Once it starts to thaw methane is released in massive amounts. Methane can and does sometimes explode underground. The thought of it doing so near shallow buried bodies that may (or may not) carry a deadly cargo of disease is a disturbing one. Spores travel easily on the breeze and God only knows what havoc would be caused if infected spores made it to a more populated area.
Methane is a gas that has a ‘greenhouse effect’ far stronger than the carbon dioxide we usually hear about. Methane traps up to 84 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide…although it hangs around for just a decade or so. If methane is released in large amounts warming over the poles will melt more permafrost which will release more methane and so on. Again this freezing and melting of the permafrost is a natural cycle, the difference is that on geological timescales humans are a mere very late addition to the planet and have not been exposed to some of these cycles before…even though we know they have happened.
The population of the planet is now significantly large enough, and technology can move us around fast enough to make an epidemic of smallpox the biggest disaster that the human race has ever faced.
There are two forms of smallpox, variola minor and variola major. Variola major is responsible for the majority of deaths from smallpox, unfortunately it is also the most common form of smallpox.
Smallpox takes a while to incubate, 7 to 17 days with a mean of 12. People are not contagious until the fever associated with the disease develops, usually at about 12 days after infection, though as stated it can be as soon as 7 days or as long as 17. From this point the sufferer is infectious. They will have flu like symptoms and will have no outward signs that they are spreading a deadly disease to everyone they come into contact with. A rash of flat reddened areas starts three days after the fever and spreads across the body, it’s a further two days before the rash becomes raised and fluid and pus filled blisters form.
On average infected people were in contact with others for a full five days, from the onset of the fever to the start of scab formation, and even then it was sometimes mistaken for cow-pox or chickenpox by those inexperienced in the disease.
If the person survives they will start losing the scabs after a month…the scabs themselves are infectious and a person is not clear of the disease until every last scab has gone from their body.
We have to ask what precautions are being taken to ensure that past smallpox sufferers do not send us a living history lesson. We need to hope that those in charge of areas where the permafrost is disgorging bodies take every preventative measure they can to ensure our safety.