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Experts: Anthrax outbreak in Yamal is first sign Arctic may be in danger

Global warming is capable of triggering more cases of various diseases, whose infectious agents have remained preserved in permafrost soil for centuries, microbiologists and climatologists said

MOSCOW/NOVOSIBIRSK, August 5. /TASS/. This summer’s outbreak of anthrax in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic, resulting from unusually warm weather, may be followed by others in neighboring regions. Global warming is capable of triggering more cases of various diseases, whose infectious agents have remained preserved in permafrost soil for centuries, microbiologists and climatologists said in a TASS video conference on Friday.

Unusually high temperatures in the Arctic

The director of the Global Climate Change and Ecology Institute under the federal weather-watching service Rosgidromet and the Russian Academy of Sciences, Sergey Semyonov, recalled that July 2016 turned out the warmest ever since systematic weather observations began to be made. In a number of Russian Arctic areas, including Yamal, where an anthrax outbreak has occurred, air temperatures occasionally climbed to above 30 degrees Celsius - something unprecedented in the Far North.

Professor Valery Malinin, of the Russian State Hydrometeorological University in St. Petersburg, agrees, the global warming in the Arctic is rather serious. In areas inside the Arctic Circle, climate change is 3-4 times faster than in other areas. Heavy floods of the past few years are another major aspect of the problem.

Climate change in the Arctic is fraught not with just natural calamities. The deputy director of the Permafrost Studies Institute under the Russian Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Grigoriev, recalls that the usual thaw depth in Yakutia is 0.30-0.6 meters, while this year it has exceeded one meter.

"The rock and soil that forms the Yamal Peninsula contain much ice. Melting may loosen the soil rather quickly, so the probability is high old cattle graves may come to the surface. Some graves dug in the past may be just three meters deep, covered by a very thin layer of soil. The spores of the disease are now on the loose," Grigoriev said.

Long-forgotten trouble spots

The Russian Academy of Sciences’ associate member, Sergey Netesov, warns there are thousands of such cattle graves across Russia and many of them are inside the Arctic circle. Anthrax is a disease that has been known for centuries and methods of effectively resisting it had been devised many decades ago in the Russian Empire. The burial sites of infected household animals were fenced off to prevent relapses. But anthrax spores may last hundreds of years, says Netesov, the chief of the bionanotechnology, microbiology and virology laboratory at the natural sciences department of the Novosibirsk State University.

"The areas are cordoned off. This goes without saying. But my region, Novosibirsk, may see air temperatures as low as 40 degrees below freezing in winter and 40 degrees above zero in summer. In a climate like this wooden fences don’t last long. In the meantime the abandoned pastures begin to look very good and at a certain point people forget that these are no-go areas for livestock," Netesov told the media.

Over the past years the fences around cattle graves have been renewed, but what had been there before is anyone’s guess. Specialists have managed to piece together the map of anthrax outbreaks of the past few centuries only partially. Unknown cattle graves in Russia may prove too numerous to count. In permafrost soil spores are preserved very well. In warm weather the risk is high Arctic areas may face Siberian anthrax outbreaks again and again.

Smallpox from Kolyma

Permafrost keeps not just anthrax spores, but agents of many other disease that seem to have been gone never to return. "Back in the 1890s there occurred a major epidemic of smallpox. There was a town where up to 40% of the population died. Naturally, the bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost soil, on the bank of the Kolyma river. Now, a little more than a hundred years later Kolyma’s floodwaters have started eroding the banks," said the deputy director for research at the Institute for Biological Problems of Cryolithozone at the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences, Boris Kershengolts.

Netesov said specialists from the Novosibirsk-based Virology and Biotechnology Center had conducted research in the area. The corpses they studied bore sores that looked like those smallpox might cause. The virus itself was not found, though, only some fragments of its DNA.

"This type of research should go on. Examining deeper burials might help clear up the situation," Netesov said.

Yamal draws attention to the problem

Netesov hopes that the anthrax outbreak in Yamal will prompt taking a more serious attitude to preventive measures against dangerous infections.

"The Yamal outbreak is a reason enough to finance research into the diagnostics and prevention of exceptionally dangerous infections," he said.

A total of 96 people, including 50 children, have been evacuated from the anthrax-affected area.

Twelve nomads tested positive for anthrax. On August 1 a 12-year-old boy died of the gastrointestinal form of the disease. The Yamal district of the Yamal-Nenets autonomous area has been quarantined since July 25. The disease has killed 2,300 reindeer.

The local authorities blamed the outbreak on warm summer. Air temperatures in Yamal were unusually high, at times 35 degrees Celsius, for a whole month. Dormant spores of Siberian anthrax woke up.