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Death from below: how global warming is reawakening long-buried diseases

  • Written by  Laura Cole & Chris Fitch
  • Published in Polar
The frozen ground of the Yamal Peninsula holds a deadly secret The frozen ground of the Yamal Peninsula holds a deadly secret Aleksei Marinchenko
29 Aug
As climate change increasingly melts ice and permafrost in the Earth’s most northern regions, deadly toxins – presumed buried forever – are returning to the surface

In the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, much attention was focused on the Arctic – the shortest direct distance between the main populated areas of the USA and the Soviet Union. Greenland – then still fully under Danish control – was very much on the American radar as a vital testing ground and frontline military base.

In April 1951, the US struck a deal with Denmark which allowed it to build several air bases on Greenland, in exchange for ensuring American protection against a potential Soviet invasion of the island. A resulting settlement, Camp Century, known as the ‘city under the ice’, opened in 1959. Powered by a nuclear reactor, it housed between 85 and 200 soldiers.

Unbeknown to the Danish government, Camp Century was also being used to facilitate Project Iceworm – a plan to build a far larger base which would have been capable of housing a 4,000km (2,500-mile) tunnel system beneath the ice, and be able to deploy up to 600 nuclear missiles towards the Soviet Union. Thankfully, nuclear war was never declared and both Camp Century and Project Iceworm were eventually decommissioned, the Army Corps of Engineers abandoning the camp, leaving it to be covered by the harsh, freezing elements of Greenland’s climate.

camp centuryThe northeast portal to Camp Century during construction in 1959 (Image: US Army)

New research now finds that, despite falling snow burying the camp up to 35 metres (115 feet) beneath the ice, the melting effects of climate change are beginning to uncover secrets which many people probably wish were hidden forever. This includes 240,000 litres of waste water – including sewage and low-level radioactive coolant from the nuclear generator – and 200,000 litres of diesel fuel, all of which could create a significant environmental hazard were it to somehow leach into the surrounding marine ecosystem. The findings are increasingly leading to geopolitical tensions over whose responsibility it should be to clean up the waste and derelict camp, as it gradually returns to the surface.

‘When we looked at the climate simulations, they suggested that rather than perpetual snowfall, it seems that as early as 2090, the site could transition from net snowfall to net melt,’ says William Colgan, a climate and glacier scientist at York University in Toronto, Canada, and a research associate at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in Boulder, Colorado. ‘Once the site transitions from net snowfall to net melt, it’s only a matter of time before the wastes melt out; it becomes irreversible.’

shutterstock 419455618Reindeer herders in the Yamal Peninsula (Image: Kovalchuk)

Pandemic legacy

As well as exposing radioactive waste, melting permafrost has uncovered ‘zombie’ infectious pathogens, such as anthrax, endangering communities in the Russian Arctic.

Last month, two people died and 90 were hospitalised in Russia’s Yamal Peninsular when anthrax broke out. The infectious disease spread to the community via its livestock, killing 2,300 reindeer in the process. Not seen in the region since 1941, the strain is thought thought to have come from an infected human or reindeer carcass buried in permafrost 70 years ago. Buried, that is, until warm weather brought it back to the surface.

Known for years as the ‘Siberian Plague’, anthrax wracked northern Russia in the early 20th century with repeated outbreaks. ‘More than a million reindeer died,’ says Birgitta Evengård, an expert in infectious diseases at the Umea University in Sweden. To make matters worse, the frigid soils of Siberia’s permafrost made it difficult to bury the dead deep in the ground. ‘There are thought to be more than 7,000 shallow burial sites of infected carcasses across Siberia,’ says Evengård, ‘and some academics estimate it could be double that number.’ The permafrost keeps the disease close to the surface and keeps it alive – such cold temperatures allow anthrax to remain dormant until warmed back to life.

As the permafrost melts the buried infectious diseases will likely continue to be a problem. ‘The Arctic is warming almost three times faster than the rest of the world,’ says Evengård. When the anthrax broke out, the region had been experiencing an extraordinarily warm summer, with some days reaching 35 degrees celsius – ten degrees warmer than average.

For experts, these changes offer a glimpse into the future of infectious disease migration. ‘We can watch and learn how its ecosystems are changing and how pathogens are moving,’ says Evengård, ‘however, for the herder communities living there, the thawing out of infected remains is a real and immediate threat. Adequate vaccination measures must be taken.’

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