“In the past few years, there has been a growing fear about a possible consequence of climate change: zombie pathogens. Specifically, bacteria and viruses — preserved for centuries in frozen ground — coming back to life as the Arctic’s permafrost starts to thaw.
The idea resurfaced in the summer of 2016, when a large anthrax outbreak struck Siberia.”
Last summer, Zac Peterson was on the adventure of a lifetime.
The 25-year-old teacher was helping archaeologists excavate an 800-year-old log cabin, high above the Arctic Circle on the northern coast of Alaska.
They had pitched tents right on the beach. Over the course of a month, Peterson watched a gigantic pod of beluga whales swim along the beach, came face-to-face with a hungry polar bear invading their campsite and helped dig out the skull of a rare type of polar bear.
But the most memorable thing happened right at the end of the trip.
“I noticed a red spot on the front of my leg,” Peterson says. “It was about the size of a dime. It felt hot and hurt to touch.”
The spot grew quickly. “After a few days, it was the size of a softball,” he says.
Peterson realized he had a rapidly spreading skin infection. And he thought he knew where he might have picked it up: a creature preserved in the permafrost.
Nano-zombies or red herrings?
In the past few years, there has been a growing fear about a possible consequence of climate change: zombie pathogens. Specifically, bacteria and viruses — preserved for centuries in frozen ground — coming back to life as the Arctic’s permafrost starts to thaw.
The idea resurfaced in the summer of 2016, when a large anthrax outbreak struck Siberia.
A heat wave in the Arctic thawed a thick layer of the permafrost, and a bunch of reindeer carcasses started to warm up. The animals had died of anthrax, and as their bodies thawed, so did the bacteria. Anthrax spores spread across the tundra. Dozens of people were hospitalized, and a 12-year-old boy died.
On the surface, it looked as if zombie anthrax had somehow come back to life after being frozen for 70 years. What pathogen would be next? Smallpox? The 1918 flu?
The media took the idea of “zombie pathogens” and ran with it.
“Climate change … could awaken Earth’s forgotten pathogens,” The Atlantic wrote in November. “Many of these pathogens may be able to survive a gentle thaw — and if they do, researchers warn, they could reinfect humanity.”
“Scientists are witnessing the theoretical turning into reality: infectious microbes emerging from a deep freeze,” Scientific American wrote.
But something is a little fishy about these “zombie pathogen” stories: The evidence presented is as holey as Swiss cheese.
The key researcher cited is a biologist who studies amoeba viruses, not human viruses. These so-called monster viruses have evolved to live in cold soil, deep underground, not in warm, human flesh above ground.
And in terms of zombie bacteria, anthrax is a red herring. Anthrax has been “rising up” from soils all over the world for millennia, even longer. The bacteria survive by hibernating in the ground until conditions are right and then spring back to life. Back in the Middle Ages, it was common to see fields of dead sheep in Europe, wiped out by “zombie” anthrax. The French called these fields champs maudits, or the “cursed fields.”
Now there are some tantalizing hints that the Arctic is, indeed, a frozen champ maudits, filled with pathogens even more dangerous than anthrax. Across the permafrost — which covers an area twice the size of the U.S. — there are tens of thousands of bodies preserved in the frozen soil. Some of these people died of smallpox. And some died of the 1918 flu — a strain of influenza that swept the globe and killed more than 50 million people.
But is there actually any evidence that these deadly viruses could survive a “gentle thaw” and then start a new outbreak?
To figure that out, I headed up to the top of the world, where Zac Peterson was last summer, to see exactly what type of creatures — and diseases — are hiding in the permafrost.
I was not disappointed.
“We’ve got a head right here”
Up on top of an ocean bluff, Zac Peterson and a few students are on their knees, digging inside a hole that’s about the size of a Volkswagen minivan.
In 2013, a severe storm ripped off a big chunk of the bluff. Now the 800-year-old cabin is teetering on the edge of a cliff, near the town of Utqiagvik in Alaska. The team is trying to pull off an emergency excavation before the cabin crumbles into the ocean.
Hunters have been using this spot for thousands of years. At one end of the house, somebody was storing fresh kills.
“We’ve got a head right here, and a main body right there,” says Peterson, as he points to two mummified seals, lying face up in a soup of thawing permafrost and decaying sea mammal flesh inside the cabin.
The seals are starting to warm up. Their organs are seeping out of their bodies and beginning to decay. The whole area smells like a rotting tuna fish sandwich. Peterson’s pants are covered in black, oily goo.