What do anthrax-riddled reindeer corpses, a pile of flaming horse manure, and thawing cold war waste at a top-secret military base in Greenland have in common? These are just three of the increasingly bizarre and disturbing impacts of a warming climate that made headlines this summer. Climate scientists like myself are always trying to anticipate the unexpected - but the full implications of a warming planet are starting to catch even us by surprise.
So what's going on? Let's start with the anthrax. Some 75 years ago, an anthrax outbreak swept across Siberia, killing around a million reindeer. Because the ground there is permafrost, those reindeer were buried in shallow mass graves across northern Russia. This summer has been an exceptionally warm one on the Yamal Peninsula, a piece of land that juts out into the Kara Sea north of the Arctic Circle. The mercury there hit 93 degrees in July, some 14 degrees above normal. During this heatwave, at least one of those reindeer corpses remerged from the thawing permafrost. The anthrax spores inside it proved viable, and sparked a new outbreak. To date, one person--a 12-year-old boy--has died, 72 people have been hospitalized, and at least 2,300 reindeer have perished.
"It sounds like an episode of Game of Thrones but in fact, it's another wake-up call that global warming is entering a new and disturbing phase," writes Hilary Bambrick, a bioanthropologist whose research focuses on the health impacts of climate change. Perhaps the worst part about this anthrax outbreak is it will likely reoccur as the permafrost keeps melting. And there are untold other viruses and bacteria locked in the permafrost, including smallpox. "We really don't know what's buried up there," Birgitta Evengard, a microbiologist at Umea University in Sweden, told NPR. "This is Pandora's box."
And the flaming horse poop? This July brought record-breaking heat to the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. In a town called Throop, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, residents began to notice a terrible, unexplained smell wafting their way. Residents complained to the state environmental agency, which determined that a pile of horse manure outside a stable in town had spontaneously combusted in the extremely hot and dry conditions. "It took three local fire departments more than two hours to extinguish the burning manure," the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said in a press release. Poop in Throop: you can't make this stuff up.
And the thawing top-secret military base? In 1959, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tunneled into a glacier in northwest Greenland and built Camp Century, "the City Under Ice," which they claimed was an arctic research station. In reality it was a secret Cold War-era nuclear missile test site. It was abandoned eight years later, due to shifts in the glacier that made it structurally unsound, but the waste--including raw sewage, radioactive coolant, and PCBs--was left behind, beneath the ice. "They thought it would snow in perpetuity," Tom Colgan, a geography professor at York University in Toronto, told NPR. "The phrase they used was that the waste would be preserved for eternity by perpetually accumulating snow." However, thanks to climate change, that isn't the case. The glacier--and Greenland's whole ice sheet--is melting, and Colgan and his colleagues warned in a study published in Geophysical Research Letters in early August that the base's wastes will spill out by 2090, carried by meltwater through tunnels in the glacier into the ocean. Ugh!
What's scary about climate change is that there are so many unanticipated ways that it will affect us. I study our warming planet full-time. I'm even writing a chapter right now, with Rutger's Bob Kopp and other colleagues, about what surprises the future may hold under a changing climate. But in my wildest imagination, I couldn't have imagined these headlines!
These three examples illustrate how the earth's climate system - and all of us who live in it - are bound together by an unimaginably complex web of action and reaction. As we continue this unprecedented experiment with our planet, there's one thing we know for sure: the imperative to curb emissions and slow our warming has never been clearer.