Climate Threat: Thawing Tundra Releases Infected Corpses
Yards and yards of clear plastic sheeting line the cellar floor, dwarfing the corpse: headless, frail, supine. The young bony arms — covered in fine black powder from centuries of immobility in the frozen tundra — are crossed at rest, reminiscent of a ceremonial burial. Camera flashes illuminate the scene. Several dozen scientists stand around the body, murmuring in Russian and English about the find of the day.
How long do you think it was buried? Do you think it’s male or female? How did they get it back to camp? And the pervasive thought: I don’t think we should touch it. He could have died of smallpox.
Smallpox was a vicious disease before its eradication in the 1970s, but the virus is hardy and can survive long-term storage. One such storage unit is the tundra of the high northern latitudes that preserves an unknown number of bodies that could have died from smallpox. Global warming is now rapidly thawing this freezer, increasing the chance that someone could come into contact with a smallpox-infested body, thereby reintroducing the disease