The Risk of Pathogens in Permafrost

The controversy over global warming is bringing new concerns for scientists. Ice is beginning to melt in some of the coldest parts of the world. There are several complications that could result from this action. One theory has now become a realized threat. As permafrost layers melt, ancient diseases may become present in the environment. The extent of risk is unknown, as some of these layers have been frozen for thousands of years.

Recent Outbreak 

Isolated parts of Siberia house extreme amounts of permafrost. A recent anthrax outbreak has shown what we may be in store for if climate continues to change. Several humans fell prey to the disease, with one resulting in a fatality. The amount of humans affected remained minimal, however. The reindeer population was not so fortunate. Over 2.000 reindeer contracted anthrax in the first outbreak seen for over 75 years. Anthrax naturally lives in soil, making frozen ground a likely source. It is thought that the disease was released from soil and reached the reindeer through their water and food supply. Anthrax is a disease that the modern medical community is familiar with. This gives patients hope of successful treatment. The outcome may be much more ominous when unknown pathogens begin to emerge.

High Risk Areas

It cannot be known what hides in soil from ancient worlds, yet some high risk areas recorded in history are known to the modern world. Some of the diseases of the 18th and 19th centuries are well recorded and scientists are aware of the burial sites. Risk of disease may be higher in these areas. A large concern is also areas that have not been thawed at all during the last few centuries. These areas pose threats that scientists know nothing about. There is no written record from the last time most permafrost locations were thawed out. This could result in exposure to unknown diseases. Modern humans may not harbor immunity to these diseases, being so far removed from them.

The Temperatures

Permafrost is measured by inserting a tool into the ice. Once the probe hits the fully frozen ice, a measurement can be taken indicating the depth. Interestingly, the soil softens again on the other side of the permafrost, as it nears the earth’s crust. About 50 centimeters of ice thaw out each summer directly above the permafrost in Siberia. An increase in temperatures took the area to a temperature 25 degrees higher than normal and it stayed up for a significant amount of time. This may have made the thawed area larger or deeper. While these depths may have actually been exposed in the last century, this won’t be the case if this keeps up. Different microorganisms are lying in wait for exposure.


Plant life has been preserved for centuries in the permafrost, as well. These plants may be introduced back into the ecosystem. The more likely event, however, is the decomposition resulting from the combination of moisture and heat. The soggy areas may host dying plant life. The overload of carbon into the air is going to be a problem. This is also caused when widespread fires rampage forests, leaving decomposing material behind. Air quality may be one of the many issues encountered.

Survival in Permafrost 

Viruses are strong pathogens that can often survive harsh conditions. Many illnesses are susceptible to the extreme cold and may not have survived. Past studies on ancient humans have not given clear proof of mysterious diseases, yet. Permafrost is not only cold, it has a lack of oxygen. This lack of oxygen halts decomposition. Survival depends on the type of organism. Anthrax lived through the freeze due to the fact that it undergoes sporulation. Anthrax spores are often inhaled by victims of the disease. Diseases may not simply be hanging out in the permafrost on their own, either. Dead animals, and possibly humans, may be trapped in the ice.

Other Complications 

A warming world brings many other issues that are becoming prevalent immediately. Cholera spreads much easier in warm temperatures. Mosquito borne illnesses becoming widespread. They are showing up in obscure places. Dengue fever has been recorded in the Southern United States, as well as the sika virus and west Nile. Warmer winter seasons contribute to an increase in the mosquito population. A significant drop in temperature over a period of time is necessary to kill off the mosquito population. Otherwise, large amounts of the insects remain, overpowering communities in the warmer months. Incidences of malaria are also becoming noticeable in higher altitudes. An increase in disease is already noticeable.

Permafrost layers house many mysteries that may become accessible in the coming years. This may happen sooner than most people imagine. Warnings of climate change may not be taken seriously in time to make the necessary changes. An extreme amount of damage has already taken place. Scientists are monitoring the permafrost closely so they can be aware of significant changes. DNA sequences are also being studied to better understand what to expect from organisms hidden in the permafrost.


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