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Could more deadly dangers like 'Zombie Anthrax' lie beneath the Arctic Circle's melting ice?

The thawing permafrost could unleash bacteria from a deadly smallpox epidemic in northeastern Siberia, and Cold War-era radioactive material under Greenland's ice sheet.
Photo via le ministère des Situations d'urgence de la région autonome de Yamal-Nenets.

The recent "zombie" anthrax outbreak unleashed by the rapid melting of permafrost that killed 2,300 reindeer, hospitalized dozens, and killed one child in northern Siberia could be an ominous glimpse into what rising temperatures mean for our future.

The deadly bacteria was released because an anthrax-infected reindeer carcass, which had been frozen in the permafrost for 75 years, started to thaw after record-high summer temperature struck the region. The rate at which the permafrost melted this summer was three times faster than usual, the Siberian Times reported.


Video footage taken at the scene is evocative of a bad science fiction film. Against the backdrop of the vast, Yamal-Nenets region of the Arctic circle, the video shows herds of reindeer, people walking around in yellow hazmat suits and masks, disinfecting the ground, and incinerating infected matter.

The infection has mostly afflicted the region's nomadic reindeer herding population. While the numbers of those hospitalized with the infection seem to be dwindling — two weeks ago 115 people were hospitalized with suspected cases — scientists are worried about what else could be trapped beneath the melting permafrost.

Related: 1,500 reindeer dead, 40 humans hospitalized amid anthrax outbreak in Siberia

Scientists are particularly worried about smallpox. Boris Kershengolts, the deputy director for research at the Institute for Biological Problems of Cryolithozone (another name for permafrost) told the Siberian Times that an outbreak of smallpox in 1890's devastated towns across northeastern Siberia, including Kolmya.

"There was a town where up to 40 percent of the population died," Kershengolts said. "Naturally the bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost, on the bank of the Kolmya River. Now a little more than 100 years later, Kolmya's floodwater have started eroding the banks."

In March 2014, French scientists discovered an ancient virus that "came back to life" after lying dormant and frozen in the deep Siberian permafrost for more than 30,000 years.


It's not just diseases that could be unleashed thanks to rising temperatures. A top-secret nuclear missile project base built by the US Army under the Greenland ice sheet during the Cold War, known as "Project Iceworm," was meant to grow into a network of tunnels that could be used to deploy nuclear missiles able to reach the Soviet Union in the event of nuclear war.

Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Emergency SItuations of the Yaman-Nenets Autonomous region

Project Iceworm was ultimately abandoned in 1967 due to unstable ice conditions, and the US wrongly assumed that whatever they had created until then would be permanently entombed in layers of snow and ice.

A report published earlier this month by the American Geophysical Union warned that rising temperatures and melting ice would "guarantee" the release of "physical, chemical, biological, and radiological wastes abandoned at the site."

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen