As bad as this year’s flu epidemic has been, at least in the United States, most of us rest easy knowing that deadlier and nastier mass-murdering pathogens such as bubonic plague and smallpox live mostly in our collective memory. Or do they? As climate change melts longstanding permafrost, some scientists fear that “zombie pathogens,” which have been slumbering for centuries, might be waking up, threatening to overtake humanity again.

Permafrost refers to a layer of permanently frozen earth—it has to be frozen for a minimum of two years to qualify—found primarily in most continually frosty parts of the world such as the Arctic Circle, Greenland, Alaska and Siberia. According to National Geographic, there are some 22.8 million square miles of permafrost in the world. Research has shown that Earth's permafrost heated up by 6 degrees Celsius during the 20th century and scientists predict even more dramatic melting by 2100. Not only will this raise ocean levels and exacerbate erosion, it may also mean a release of pathogens better left frozen.

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Since October, over 130 hippos and eight buffalo in Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park have died following a suspected anthrax outbreak. Officials dispatched state veterinarians to the area to confirm the presence and prevalence of the lethal bacteria, which typically afflicts game and cattle. Authorities also emphasized the immediate need for locals to steer clear of the area and avoid consuming hippo meat, a regional delicacy.

Though slow to spread, once contracted, anthrax is highly lethal unless swiftly treated with antibiotics. Caused by bacteria Bacillus anthracis, its spores often lies dormant in soil or stagnant pools for years before entering animals through cuts or wounds. Hippos are especially susceptible to infection as they spend so much time in the water.

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