Question for Climate Panel: What About the Thawing of Long-Frozen Microbes Buried in Permafrost?

By Susan Jones | June 5, 2019 | 10:23am EDT

( - Of all the pressing problems in the world, here's another one to put on the list -- or not.

At a hearing of the House intelligence committee Wednesday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) asked a climate change panel about the risk of prehistoric germs coming out of hibernation:

"As the globe heats up, scientists assess that long-frozen microbes buried in the permafrost will be exposed, potentially carrying diseases to which no living human has natural resistance," Speier said.

She noted that in 2016 in Siberia, a 12-year-old boy died and 20 more were sickened by anthrax after a 75-year-old reindeer carcass thawed during a heatwave, infecting the local water supply.

She asked about the burden that "prehistoric germs" could place on local health systems and how they could impact our military readiness.

"Thank you. That's a really good question," Dr. Rod Schoonover, a State Department analyst on national security and climate change, responded. "It's actually a really good illustration of a class of national security problems that I think of in terms of climate-linked surprise," he said.

"If you had assessed ahead of time what the risk from thawing caribou from the permafrost would be, no one would have an answer, but once it presents itself, it makes sense."

He continued:

And so, I don't really know what the level of exposure is, and I would look to the scientific assessment on the prevalence of that. One of the things that it is sometimes hard to do is to separate anecdote from trend.

But emergent diseases, or re-emergent diseases, from previously -- from frozen permafrost, for example, provided, I think, if it were recent enough -- if it goes back too far, it might not have the degree of infectibility on human beings.

But I'm speculating there. But I do believe that there is probably some emergent risk for humans and animals that humans depend on.

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