Melting Boundaries and Frozen Pasts: Anthrax, Globalism, and Climate Change

The first six months of 2016 brought the greatest increase in global warming in recent years, and a rise in temperature that far surpassed all previous records–and occasioned a rapid melting of polar ice challenging to map as well as to imagine in all its cascading consequences.  The 378th consecutive month of land and water temperatures far above twentieth-century averages, as per the World Meteorological Organization, became an occasion to wonder how “many more surprises are ahead of us”for the director of the  World Climate Research Program, and brought the arrival of strikingly new consequences of climate change with the unearthing of unmarked graves, as the once-fixed boundary to what had constituted the northern boundary of continents has begun to retreat.

A set of such surprises have already arrived.  The increased melting of what were once thought permanently frozen regions of arctic permafrost first awoke dormant but contagious anthrax.  While this latest development provided a note of panic, it seems only emblematic of the eventual cascading of after-effects that the melting of the arctic stands to bring, and of the difficulty to place them in any coherent narrative.  Yet while we use maps to organize a range of data on climate change, it’s also true that the emergence of anthrax in the Siberian tundra provides a poignant illustration of the “surprises” that climate change will bring.  And while the world has not known smallpox cases since 1977, the contraction of the permafrost stands to reveal extinct smallpox, and indeed prehistoric viruses of up to 30,000 years old, as cattle graves are newly exhumed from permafrost.  The last smallpox epidemic in Siberia dates only from the 1890s, but the buried bodies by the Kolyma river have appeared as if by unexpected time-travel with Smallpox DNA, raising the possibility of with the unearthing of riverbanks, and  sites of burial of both infected animals and diseased bodies as the ground thaws.  Areas infected with anthrax spores release by preternatural global warming are being cordoned off, but the revived viruses and spores may travel widely in water in ways difficult if not impossible to map.

As we seem to be opening up much of the north pole and an Arctic Ocean for multiple new shipping routes, in ways that have led to projections of expanding trade-routes with names that reference imagined passageways like the Northwest Passage, the imagined increased shrinkages and thinning of layers polar ice due to global melting are understood as opening up new routes to nautical shipping as ice retreats from much of the arctic regions–but which, if they were only understood in the abstract in 2013, are now becoming increasingly concrete in the range of consequences that can cascade from them.


Arctic ROutes.pngBloglobal (2013)


The arrival of a period of pronounced decline in arctic sea ice has produced a newly palpable intimations of the vanishing of what were once expanses of ice.



The melting of these formerly frozen boundaries have brought long-dormant bacteria to life.  Flesh frozen over seventy-five years ago has begun to decompose as the permafrost has receded due to warming arctic air, causing considerable panic and increased media attention.   With polar melting, the revelation of animal and plant remains once entombed in the permafrost–itself constituted by the frozen remains of animal and plant matter–animal carcasses frozen for hundreds of years in the permafrost peat have been exposed.  The result of releasing resilient undead bacterial microbes, some still infectious after thousand of years, at the same time as buildings, highways, runways, animal paths, pipelines or telephone poles constructed on the permafrost start to collapse.  The recent visualizations of the shrinking frontier of polar ice created by the National Snow and Ice Data Center provide little cognitive assistance to grasp the immensity of such changes, but accurately mark the disappearing boundary-line of formerly frozen sea is a terrifying contraction of the extent and continuity of arctic ice.





In an era of accelerated climate change, temperatures have been especially high in the Arctic, where temperature anomalies have been so high to cause an unprecedentedly steep decline in the extent of Arctic sea ice not only degrading habitat as the ice sheet is almost half what it was in 1979.  The construction of circumarctic maps over the past decade have charted the retreat of permafrost that has occurred with an apparent exponential heating that has already begun to displace millions of living animals–creating a migration crisis not only of polar bears, long emblematic of shrinking sea ice due to climate change–as well, of course, other looming migration crises of men, women and families.


ice flow.pngVOA

The broad distribution of growing temperatures of the arctic regions is a symbolic reminder of global nature of climate change, to be sure, but also an odd occasion in which the rise of above-normal temperatures proposed the redefinition of place–the extent of arctic ice, and also of the arctic–in ways we are only beginning to take stock.  Indeed, if Edward Casey has described how “the cataclysmic events of world wars, which have acted to undermine any secure sense of abiding place–[if not] in fact to destroy it altogether in the case of a radical anti-place such as Auschwitz; the force migrations of entire peoples, along with the continual drifting on the part of many individuals, suggesting that the world is nothing but a scene of endless displacement,” accelerated global warming has begun to erase the notion of the arctic as a place.




The refreezing of frozen permafrost was most evident in the southernmost reaches of high summer temperatures in Siberia, where the melting of tundra peat, accelerated no doubt by contact with saline waters, have degraded the identity of the arctic in definitive ways.

So concentrated were such anomalies of surface air-temperatures in Siberia, that the news of a melting of the Permafrost suddenly gained new legs in global media as long-frozen Anthrax bacteria were found to be virulent in many of those regions, giving a specificity to the processes of changing polar temperatures that are otherwise difficult to process for many in global maps of temperature shifts.


July PolarAnomolaies.pngNSDIC




The increased melting of the polar ice-cap has opened areas of frozen peat, long submerged under snow and ice, to salty waters that have increased their decay and melting, in ways that pose to change our understanding of climate change.  The radical temperatures this past July have not only broken previous records, however, as an anomaly of air temperatures–



–produced an erosion of place, and suggests a tipping point in the notion of the arctic regions, not only redrawing the continuity of arctic ice but unveiling new microscopic entities its under what were once frozen layers.  Indeed, the revelation of undead spores of infectious anthrax in Siberia brought by the melting permafrost of the Yamal tundra has killed at least 1,500 unsuspecting reindeer, echoes bioterrorists’ dirty bombs but is the result of broadly distributed responsibility.

Climate change has proceeded far more rapidly at upper latitudes than many would have thought, with the result of warming the world’s poles–as if uncovering “dirty bombs” of bioterrorism hidden in time capsules on the edges of the inhabited world by the unprecedented thawing currently degrading regions of Siberia’s long-frozen tundra, whose grassy earth peaks out from beneath the snow in the photograph above.




The surprisingly unseasonable warming of atmospheric temperatures in upper latitudes have precipitated the unintended exhumation of reindeer carcasses as well as bodies interred on river banks–with the result of allowing undead bacteria, frozen for centuries as spores, to travel, newly nourished, by river-water to travel to infect new human hosts–placing a new wrinkle on maps of the very dramatic shrinkage of ice extent in the arctic circle beyond the recent median from the period 1980-2010.

If Anthrax can lay dormant in the ground for hundreds of years, bacteria from the last known outbreak in the mid-twentieth century stand to circulate in local water supplies, and trigger toxins that produce a range of symptoms.  Already, very tragically, a child has already been reported dead from Anthrax; and with temperatures reaching an earlier improbable 35C in Siberia, causing Bacillus anthracis, which hibernates in the form of spores to survive in frozen ground, to reappear, the deadly virus threatens to spread after flourishing in warmed ambient surroundings, as if in a laboratory Petrie dish.  Although the rural area is predominantly populated by nomadic herders and reindeer, the specter of anthrax being loosed in any populated areas comes to rival Zika virus as an emblem of an approaching dystopian future, where rising temperatures offer new vectors for diseases to travel over broader distances than ever before, echoing fears of the movement of Ebola–but now flaring up over unpredictably large expanses by new vectors of transmission.


countries-with-reported-active-zika-transmissionBroadening map of Zika transmission born by mosquitoes beyond its original locations/CDC


Global panic around the prospect of further infections has grown after Anthrax was diagnosed in eight people.  Although the danger of such an emergent infection had been predicted last fall in an academic research paper, the fear that warming climates might release long-frozen viruses and other pathogens, as if in a scenario from Jurassic Park.  The individual death from the emergent virus that has long been feared may warrant panic.

But the prospect of its spread as a result of rising polar temperatures seems oddly triggered by familiarity with the ominous use of maps to try to describe narratives of impending global catastrophes caused by expansive climate change, which undoubtedly invest the fears of viral contagion with a still greater sense of impending disaster.  It almost seems is as if the actual disaster of climate change has lent sudden dramatic focus in the potential emergence of long-buried anthrax, as the ice concentration in northern regions has declined to unheard of levels and rarely expands outside the polar region, and the thickness of ice has begun to fluctuate wildly with warming polar airs.







Global media outlets have recently broadcast panic in headlines that scream “Thawing Reindeer Carcasses Trapped in Ice Unleash Anthrax in Siberia.”  Stories of the evacuation of as many as 160 nomadic herders from the infection hotspot and area placed under quarantine seem a post-modern confusion of the local and the anthropogenic intriguing for its unexpected causal links suggestive of chaos theory as much as science.  But it suggests all the new ingredients of a pop post-modern apocalypse, from cross-species infections to zombie DNA to super-bacteria. The increasingly panicked reporting of the outbreak in global media prompts reflexive alarms about scenarios of global extinction with an immediacy global that, however paradoxically, warming sadly rarely possesses.




The parallel disappearance of arctic ice Arctic warming would provoke a devastating seven meter rise in global sea level:  but the increasing sensitivity of the highest latitudes to global warming, due to the “arctic amplification” of climate change, positive feedback effects that make the prediction of future temperatures difficult and make its cascading climactic consequences difficulty–or impossible–to map or foresee through computer models. The somewhat oxymoronic increase of oxymoronic “Arctic heat” itself an artifact of climate change, currently registering a six degree average increase from previous decades (i.e., thirteen degrees Fahrenheit).  The reduction of sea ice is met by less land ice–and a retreating regions of once-continuous permafrost in the northern boundaries of continents–rarely apparent on national maps, but whose melting stands to release more greenhouse gases, from methane to carbon gasses, but rewrite the region’s habitat in ways difficult to map.  One can, to be sure, try to comprehend the immensity of cascading change by relating the extent of ongoing change of its climate to local consequences:




Such off-the-charts local rise in air temperature have rewritten our cognitive relation to what was known as permafrost–a region permanently frozen–that had receded by 1998, and whose degradation has been unexpectedly accelerated by pockets of warm air:  arctic warming that has decreased not only the ice-cover of the Arctic Sea to 14.27 million sq km at its wintertime peak–down almost a third of a million sq. km. from the previous year, and over a million sq km from the average of 1981-2010, and being far thinner than it once was, as well as less than half its former size–creating a massive change in habitat as well as an excavation of once partly decomposed bones and vegetal life, that might be imagined as the unexpected delivery into the global ecosystem of a huge compost bin.


mapping permafrost 1998.pngWeather Underground


A stereographic polar projection charts glacial motion at the ice cap from satellite radar interferometry of 300 planetary orbits from 2007-9 to map the speed at which tributary glaciers of the north pole are moving toward the ocean, in a spectrum distinguishing the velocity of glaciers and ice sheet moving in different once-frozen regions to the sea, providing a different way to map the speed of warming that stand to further fragment Antarctica’s ice divides, as warming streams push masses from the South Pole, discharging ice and sediment from a formerly unitary sheet at differing speeds, as Antarctica threatens to disappear gradually over time, its ice shell faulting and sheet ice melting into the sea:


Antartic velocities of drift

Science 333 (6048) Rignot-Mouginot-Scheuchl; polar stereographic at 71 degrees south; derived from ALOS PALSAR, Envirostat ASAR, ERS-1/2 satellite radar interferometry


The motion map developed by Eric Rignot in 2007-9 suggestively shows the draining of a continent, whose ice is flowing into the surrounding ocean from its glacial interior.



Rignot et al., 2007-9


The broad shifts in polar temperatures in early August 2016 suggest a similar massive retreat of arctic ice, in a similar false-color sea ice map.


arctic-sea-ice-early-augustUniversity of Bremen


Is the appearance of anthrax an illustration of the difficulty to grasp a narrative of climate change, or a new way to locate oneself in the ever-expanding ramifications of the disappearance of once continuously frozen lands?

The increasing thin-ness of arctic ice are mirrored in the constraints on habitat caused by the contraction of permafrost.  Scientists have started to widely examine by a broad distribution of bore holes as the process of climate change has come to challenges our very language for the polar region.  As its long-attributed permanence has begun to thaw, and layers of its once frozen soil incrementally starts to change and the “dead” organic lands of peat lands are no longer continuously frozen, the permafrost is no longer nearly so permanent as once thought.  The discontinuously frozen regions of former “permafrost” suggest the extent to which climate change may remove the world from the very descriptive language we once used–and a disruption of what was once the largest continuous region of permafrost but undoing the language by which it was long referred.




The gradual thawing or degrading of once-icy permafrost creates a global ecological crisis, as temperatures up to a meter below ground in what were once perennially frozen grounds  gradually warmed from the 1960s and approached melting-points by the 1990s.  If the majority of ice is concentrated in the upper tens of meters of permafrost regions, even as permafrost remains stable, regions which contained water and remains in their upper meters are increasingly thawing and degrading, releasing excess water that won’t drain, and the subsequent over-saturation of the ground may kill trees, create sinkholes, and not only exposing land but prompting a rich layer of microbial activity to come to life.

Could its emergence  or uncovering ever be mapped over time in a similarly compelling way?  Probably not:  when Bill McKibben tweets about the (re)appearance of Anthrax cases–“Good God.  As Siberian permafrost thaws, old anthrax bacteria coming to life“–it was undoubtedly to make a broader point, but the story of how a heat-wave prompted a spate of anthrax infections suggests a range of new concrete vectors to consider climate change as removing anthrax from the controlled conditions of the laboratory, and somehow to convert the landscape into a laboratory of transmission of uncontrolled circumstances where there exist no Hazmat suits.  But the laboratory is now located in the tundra.




But as much as laboratory life, global warming is something akin to the lifting of one of the seven seals of the Book of Revelations, although the seal is opened by the material melting of the permafrost–with the seven heads of the red dragon arising from the seas in Revelations 13 unleashed by arctic amplification, and the Beast from the Seas cascading effects of the melting of sea ice and sea-level rise, include the melting of glaciers, release of long-dormant anthrax, sinkholes, both methane and carbon gasses, and the breaching of long-buried radioactive waste, fuels, and long-buried PCB’s.  The exponential loss of the ice sheet in Greenland or Antarctic seems a new vision of the apocalypse, marked by the arrival of the Beast, imagined by the poet and watercolorist William Blake as witness the apocalyptic arrival of the seven-headed Beast surging up from the oceanic waves–in a terrifyingly phantasmagoric vision of apocalypse and the opening of the seven seals whose very immensity awes its observer.


Blakebeast1bg.jpgNational Gallery of Art


While tongue-in-cheek to an extent, the Blakian vision of the Beast was tied to the pollution of the oceans by Amrit Kaur Singh, in which, in true millennia fashion, one of head of the blue Beast rising from he sea gushes petroleum back into the ocean waters–


the beast-of-revelation_iw.jpgSingh Twins, 2000


–and if heavy-handed in its comic-book like rendition of a grotesque in day-glo colors, affords the sort of present-day immediacy to the seven-headed Beast rising from the once-clean seas which was echoed in the panic over the discovery of infectious Anthrax bacilli as part of the momentous arrival of the seven horsemen beneath the fiery Angle of Revelation, dwarfing a human witness unable to comprehend or transcribe it on his scroll.


14.81.1William Blake, “Angel of Revelation” (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


If Blake positioned St. John of Patmos before the Angle of Revelation, as if trying to comprehend the immensity of the scene, the exponential warming of the polar ice-caps is particularly challenging comprehend, or indeed to trace to map over time.  The non-linear progress of global melting is just beginning to be understood, and it prompts increasingly nightmarish scenarios.  Blake seems an apt analogy, if only because the color-enhanced maps of arctic warming and “greening” provide the most effective and persuasive tools to model climate change at increased rates of melting in northern latitudes, or the increased vegetation already apparent in northern climes from the Arctic to Boreal Forests, as in this image of 2013using NOAA AVHHR data on MODIS satellites recorded from 1982-2010.


Climate-Change-Shifts-Northern-Growing-SeasonsGodard Space Flight Center Visualization Studio


The infection of 2,300 reindeer in Siberia with anthrax exemplify the potential of a regeneration of microbial bacteria in the far Northern climes.  In so doing, their rebirth suggests the extent of dangers from environmental poisons in an era of climate change, caused by the considerable elevation of polar temperatures in recent years in one of the odder consequences of global warming.  Indeed, the increasing temperature anomalies in polar regions including the Siberian permafrost encourage the release of frozen anthrax spores in the frozen human and animal, creating new vectors for frozen bacterial strains to receive new leases on life in a suddenly provide nourishing ambient, as the river banks where nomadic tribes have long improvised graves for the dead begin to thaw.  As once-frozen bacterial strains enter local water supplies, incubating waters carry them to increasing populations of animals who have rarely been exposed in which to reproduce.  The local surprises that are found in the thawing of the permafrost stands to uncover suggests a change in the biosphere–as well as a threat impacting the inhabited word.

Although climate change is anthropogenic in nature, is it time to consider arctic warming and climate change beyond potential effects on the inhabited world evident in an anthropocentric perspective?  The increased growth of “Arctic warming” is evident in recent mappings of global temperature anomalies, which suggest the amplification of high temperatures in northernmost latitudes more apparent in maps than they are able to be explained–


imrs-3.php.pngTemperature Anomalies in North Pole/NASA Goddard Institute


–although the vicious cycle of the warming of the ground caused by the emergence of methane gases offers one explanation of such unexpected temperature anomalies.




The dramatic warming of arctic airspace compared to the 1981-2010 average can be easily mapped in a vivid spectrum from a slightly different polar projection from the past weeks suggests lower temperatures that normal in the East Siberian Sea over previous decades–


Arctic Airspace.png

–but a considerable expansion of the “early melt” onset of regions on the edge of the polar permafrost to challenge the land/permafrost divide in deeply disquieting ways:


early melt.png


The related story of vampiric rebirth of bacteria from frozen corpses in the permafrost may resemble science fiction more than science, but reflects how the organism of anthrax, after hibernating for centuries as frozen spores to survive  in dormant form, are released with new virulence as thawing with higher temperatures allows them regain bacterial form–and feed on a replenished sources of nourishment the newly “thawed permafrost” supplies. The increased “Arctic amplification” of temperatures has created warmer airs and reduced expected sea ice by some 400,000 square miles last January, as sea ice presence declined below 2011-12 levels, and far below the 1981-2010 average, and have helped return lost anthrax strains to threaten inhabited world.

Some sustain that the bacteria in fact derive from Soviet labs, distributed only to lend credence to a “global warming” hoax–as if recycling a new Cold War image of global terror, updated to include biological warfare–maps of climate change have so broadly challenged us to comprehend change on a global scale that they seem to be difficult to reconcile with or include local perspectives.  There is some delicious irony to read the effects of climate change interpreted through fears of  bioterrorism, as if intentional bacterial release was used to bolster faulty evidence for a credulous public, the viewpoint is most likely temporally displaced Cold War paranoia, obstructing actual global fears.

But an actual environmental disaster looming with the disappearance of the permafrost, as the subterranean nuclear base that was established by the US Army in the northwestern ice sheet of Greenland ice sheet in what was believed to remain a “dry snow zone” of the ice sheet, where melting never occurred, at the height of the Cold War in 1959.  In Camp Century, by the US Army Corps of Engineers stored a cocktail of radioactive coolant, PCB’s and diesel fuel “entombed” in tunnels then believed to be permanently interred under ice:  the stockpile of hazardous waste now feared to be exposed by the end of the century, should current warming rates continue, and the ice sheet keep disappearing at a rate of 8,000 tons per second.  The possibility poses questions about responsibilities of containing a virtual flood of physical, chemical, biological, and radioactive wastes, as the ice sheet that was though permanently frozen begins to disintegrate to ocean water and to be released as a cocktail into a radically shifting ecosystem.


velocity of ice flow off Greenland.pngA–Howat et al, 2014; B–Joughin, et al., 2010


The increased extent of arctic greening caused by rising temperatures at the north pole have created a rich resource of nourishment for newly reborn bacteria raises questions about the unforeseen expansion of local consequences of global change.  The hospitalization of some seventy-two nomadic herders for anthrax infections–including over forty children–suggests just how dangerous the return of the “Siberian plague,” last experienced in the region or epidemiologically registered back in 1941, would be provoked by the sustained melting of permafrost across much of the arctic.  The climactic exhumation of buried corpses from the banks of Siberian rivers suggest the need to prepare for increasingly unforeseen time warp of habitats that global climate change stands to unleash, and that are yet be included or even registered in color-enhanced maps of expanding Arctic greenspace in ways that would have been rarely considered twenty years ago, where “Arctic Greening” stands as an alternative surrogate for Global Warming.


imrs.phpNASA/Landsat satellite photography


The extent of sea ice naturally fluctuates in seasons, but this year has fluctuated far more than it has in earlier years.   As the extent of winter ice in Arctic seas contracts each year,  fears of impending sea-level rise in sub-Arctic lands grow, and fewer areas possess even a sixth of marine ice:


Arct Ice ExtWashington Post (as of February 16, 2016)


Areas with 15% sea ice


The results of this melting of the ground, even more than the melting of sea ice, stands to unleash changes in local ecosystems and environment that are perhaps often obscured by our dazzling ability to try to focus on a global picture, perhaps partly because they are so difficult to integrate within regional maps of temperature or landcover change, and partly because the process and mechanics of planetary climate change are so difficult to grasp.

Perhaps we’re searching for the integration of processes of change in land, water, and ice in a map of global warming or polar melting, maybe demanding multiple graphs, to better comprehend and mediate the massive cascading of a range of environmental consequences of local changes in land and sea cover in relation to local temperature rise.

The impossibility to grasp the consequences of mass loss in the Greenland ice sheet, permafrost, and antarctic ice sheet Indeed, the projected shifts in global temperatures over the next half-century and beyond suggest a dramatic warming of the polar regions’ surface air temperature in recent simulations suggest that while the melting of ice sheets might provoke a temporary lessening of global climate change,–although with different catastrophic results.




Filed under arctic, Climate Change, ecological disasters

3 responses to “Melting Boundaries and Frozen Pasts: Anthrax, Globalism, and Climate Change

  1. D
    Thanks again for being such a rich source of primary thought.

    The permeability of boundaries reaches across plateaus of coherences–vertically and horizontally. The world seems to be changing faster than our capacity to name it.
    Co-extensively yours, J


    On Thu, Aug 4, 2016 at 11:57 AM, Musings on Maps wrote:

    > Daniel Brownstein posted: “The discovery of cases of Anthrax in Siberia > that have emerged from the melting permafrost of the Yamal tundra to kill > at least 1,500 unsuspecting reindeer seems to conflate recent worries about > dirty bombs of bioterror and the consequences of global warm” >

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