Pathogens In The Permafrost: A New Climate Change Health Risk

French researchers have recovered a pair of viruses that were long frozen below the Siberian tundra. In this case, the microorganisms are harmless, but others may not be.

In Yakutia, the region of Siberia where the permafrost reaches a depth of up to 1 km
In Yakutia, the region of Siberia where the permafrost reaches a depth of up to 1 km
Yann Verdo

Deadly pathogens, frozen for tens of thousands of years in the soil of the Arctic circle, suddenly freed and reactivated because of global warming. It sounds like science fiction, and indeed, U.S. author Christy Esmahan imagined a similar scenario as the premise for her 2015 thriller The Laptev Virus.

In it, Esmahan imagines an oil company that, while drilling in the far north, accidentally releases a "megavirus' that's been dormant in the frozen tundra for 30,000 years. Death and mayhem ensue.

The Laptev Virus is just a story, of course. And yet, as much as we'd like to think otherwise — especially in the current context, with the COVID-19 pandemic still running wild — the possibility may not be so far-fetched.

That, at least, is what French scientists Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel, co-founders of a research laboratory in Marseille, warn after successfully reactivating two virus — both harmless to humans — that they discovered in the Siberian permafrost.

Permafrost is the name given by geologists to this perpetually frozen, and therefore impermeable, soil that covers no less than a fifth of the earth's surface (including half of Canada and Russia). It's also a real Pandora's box when it comes to microbial life.

"Unlike sea ice, permafrost offers all the conditions required for microbial life to be fully preserved for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years," says Claverie.

By that he means the absence of light and therefore of ultraviolet radiation, the absence of oxygen, which acts like a powerful disinfectant on microbes, a negative and stable temperature, and a neutral pH level, among other things.

Permafrost is a real Pandora's box when it comes to microbial life.

The researcher recently returned from a mission in Yakutia, the region of Siberia where the permafrost reaches a depth of up to 1 km. The deepest layers are more than a million years old.

Where there's water, there's life

Bodies of men or animals in perfect condition are regularly exhumed from the permafrost. Findings include the carcasses of mammoths or woolly rhinoceros that lived at the same time as Neanderthals. People have also discovered 300-year-old human corpses that still bear the scars of smallpox, a terrible disease that is 100 times more lethal than COVID-19, as well as the the bodies of reindeer killed decades ago by the no less formidable anthrax bacillus.

The Laptev Virus — Photo: Amazon

This last bacterium mainly infects herbivores, but they can pass it on to humans. During the summer of 2016, in an area some 2,000 km northeast of Moscow (in the district of Yamalo-Nenetsia), dozens of members of a nomadic tribe of reindeer herders suddenly ended up in hospital. One of them, a 12-year-old boy, died.

It didn't take long for the experts sent to the scene to understand what happened: Due to global warming, the abnormally high temperatures recorded that summer had melted more of the permafrost surface layer (which is sensitive to seasonal temperature variations) than usual, exposing to the open air the carcasses of reindeer killed 75 years ago by an anthrax epidemic.

The long forgotten epidemic occurred in 1941. But the bacillus spores, held captive in the frozen ground, retained all their harmful qualities and were only waiting for a little push from global warming to go back to work. Under the superficial "active" layer of permafrost, which melts every summer before being covered by another, more recent layer, is the permafrost itself, and that never thaws, at least in theory.

In reality, though, climate change is gradually raising temperatures in that deeper area as well. For now, the soil is still frozen, with a temperature of -7 to -8 °C. But studies have shown that this area heats up by approximately 0.1 °C every year, meaning it would only take between 70 and 80 years to bring that slice of soil above the freezing point. That, then, would allow liquid water to run, and where there is water, there is life, including microbial life.

What lies beneath

Diseases that no longer circulate (such as smallpox, officially eradicated since 1980) could reappear and even become endemic again. "But that's probably not the worst case scenario," Claverie warns.

The researcher explains that against diseases such as smallpox or anthrax, with which we are familiar, we have a measure of protection in the form of vaccines and/or antibiotics. But what happens if the melting permafrost unleashes unfamiliar bacteria or viruses?

"There could be pathogens with which the immune system of Homo sapiens has never had to co-evolve," Claverie says.

An open-pit mine in Yakutia — Photo: Staselnik

Back in 2003, Claverie and Chantal Abergel — together with their Marseille-based colleague Didier Raoult — discovered what became known as a "giant virus," so named because unlike classic viruses, they are large enough to be seen with an optical microscope. The Mimivirus, as they called it, was the first known giant virus.

Later, Claverie and Abergel discovered two other giant viruses in the depths of the Siberian permafrost: Pithovirus sibericum and Mollivirus sibericum, both active some 30,000 years ago, when Neanderthals still inhabited this hostile region.

"There could be pathogens with which the immune system of Homo sapiens has never had to co-evolve"

The researchers managed to "isolate" the two viruses, meaning they made them multiply again (their findings were published in the PNAS journal in 2014 and 2015 respectively). Fortunately, both of these viruses infect amoebae, which means they are harmless to animal or human cells. That's also why Claverie and Abergel were granted permission to do these experiments.

But not every virus or bacteria in permafrost (Russian scientists claim they have successfully reactivated a million-year-old bacteria) may be so harmless ...

"If you ask me if permafrost contains viruses other than amoeba viruses, the answer is "yes." Metagenomics studies have proven it," Claverie explains. "But if you ask me whether these other, potentially pathogenic viruses can also be reactivated, the answer in that case is "we don't know." And that's because we're not allowed to experiment. It's considered too dangerous."

This risk is particularly high in Siberia, where mining and hydrocarbon exploitation could theoretically facilitate the unearthing of these unknown pathogens. Indeed, it's one of those unhappy coincidences that the rocks under the permafrost layer, besides containing frozen microorganisms, are also chock full of exploitable resources, including perhaps 20% of the world's hydrocarbon reserves, plus significant quantities of precious metals, from diamonds to the rare-earth elements the tech industry loves so much.

"This is the second, indirect effect of global warming," Abergel explains. "It makes these once almost desert regions easy to access by opening up the Arctic sea lanes, which are free from sea ice eight months a year. We rush there to exploit gigantic hydrocarbon reserves and dig open-pit mines hundreds of meters deep — even if it means releasing all kinds of microorganisms about which we know absolutely nothing."

Science fiction writers can often prove to be prescient. Let's hope that's not the case for Christy Esmahan.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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