There are already plenty of reasons to fear global warming, but science just gave us one more. According to scientists in Russia, smallpox could make a comeback after nearly 40 years of dormancy. Why? Ancient corpses that carry the virus are being unearthed in Siberia because of a rapidly melting permafrost.
Smallpox was thought to be eradicated in 1980, and the last known case of the disease was in Somalia. Since its first occurrence thousands of years ago, the virus has killed millions of people. It's a devastating disease that's wiped out entire populations. This development could mean the return of smallpox and of mass deaths worldwide. There are plenty of negative effects of climate change, but researchers haven't seen anything like this before.
The Corpses Of Smallpox Victims Are Being Unearthed Because Of Rapid Melting
Some 120 years ago, a large number of people in Siberia died from a smallpox outbreak. Their bodies were entombed in the permafrost tundra – a thick subsurface layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year – and many believed they were secure from future contact. But then this year, the tundra melted more than usual. Typically, the tundra melts about one to two feet annually. This year it melted more than three feet, and scientists predict it will keep melting more.
As a result, the bodies of people and livestock infected with various diseases, including anthrax and smallpox, are coming to the surface. As carriers of the DNA for these diseases, they could spread them back into the environment. These particular bodies fell victim to an especially bad bout of smallpox. Boris Kershengolts, deputy director for research at the Institute for Biological Problems of Cryolithozone, said 40% of the population in the region was wiped out by the virus.
Scientists Are Really Worried Because People Have Already Been Affected By These Diseased Corpses
So why are scientists so worried about some dead bodies? Because they are already causing problems. Since the bodies began thawing, the region of Salekhard – near the Arctic Circle – has had an outbreak of anthrax. It's the first time in 75 years the disease has occurred in the area. The spores are believed to have come from reindeer and human corpses who carry the illness. The outbreak hospitalized at least 24 people and killed about 2,300 reindeer.
Global Warming Is Causing The Permafrost To Melt At A Rate Three Times Higher Than Normal
Experts from various Russian universities said Siberia saw its warmest summer on record in 2016, hitting 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Generally, the permafrost in Siberia thaws a little bit but remains relatively solid. Anything trapped underneath the frozen tundra – either from being purposefully buried or not – remains safely out of living-human contact, including DNA and disease. Higher global temperatures speed up the thawing process, and the tundra is unable to refreeze during the winter months.
According to Robert Spencer, an environmental scientist at Florida State University, what could be released from the tundra is bad news. In addition to deadly, dormant diseases, excessive levels of carbon and methane gas could be released. Researchers don't expect all their discoveries will be bad, though. So far, they've found wooly mammoth bones and tusks and the body of a woman they believe was probably Siberian royalty. Her body was 2,500 years old, she had elaborate tattoos, and alongside her were gilt figurines, spice pots, and six horses.