Anthrax outbreak in Russia is thought to be the result of thawing permafrost.
Russia is fighting a mysterious anthrax outbreak in a remote corner of Siberia. Dozens of people have been hospitalized; one child has died. The government has airlifted some families out as more than 2,000 reindeer have been infected.
Officials don’t know exactly how the outbreak started, but the current hypothesis is almost unbelievable: A heatwave has thawed frozen soil in Siberia and with it, a reindeer carcass that became infected with anthrax decades ago.
Some scientists think this incident could be an example of what climate change may increasingly surface in the tundra. The place where the outbreak is occurring is called the Yamal Peninsula. It lies high above the Arctic Circle at the top of the world. It’s so cold there, the soil — called permafrost — is frozen solid, more than 1,000 feet deep in some places, or about the height of the Empire State Building.
“The soil in the Yamal Pennisula is like a giant freezer,” says Jean-Michel Claverie at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. “These are very, very good conditions for bacteria to remain alive for a very long time.” 
In this case, the bacteria were anthrax and more than 75 years ago they killed a reindeer. The carcass was then covered in a thin layer of permafrost, Russian officials theorize. For decades, it lay there frozen. Then when a heatwave hit this last summer, a thicker layer of permafrost melted and the reindeer’s carcass rose to the surface. As the reindeer warmed up, so did the anthrax bacteria. Russian officials say they’re working hard to get the outbreak under control by vaccinating healthy reindeer and burning the carcasses of those that have died from the disease.
“There’s likely to be more cases of anthrax surfacing,” says Birgitta Evengard, a microbiologist at Umea University in Sweden. “That’s because climate change is causing the temperature in the Arctic Circle to rise very quickly. It’s rising about three times faster in the Arctic than in the rest of the world,” she says. “And that means the ice is melting and the permafrost is thawing.”
In the early 20th century, there were repeated anthrax outbreaks in Siberia. More than a million reindeer died. Now there are about 7,000 burial grounds with infected carcasses scattered across northern Russia. Evengard says. “It’s not that easy to dig in the permafrost to bury these animals. So they are kind of very close to the surface.”
Scientists think this means anthrax outbreaks in Siberia could now occur every summer if the climate continues to warm. And it’s not just anthrax that could be a problem. People and animals have been buried in permafrost for centuries. There could be bodies infected with all kinds of viruses and bacteria, frozen in time. Scientists are just beginning to look for it with very little idea of what and how much is actually buried up there. Evengard advises. “This is a real Pandora’s box. We have no idea of what we will find as there are no records.”
For example, researchers have found pieces of the 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska’s tundra. There’s also likely smallpox and the bubonic plague buried in Siberia also.
So the question for researchers is: Could these pathogens — like anthrax — ever be reactivated?