Terror Under the Tundra

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Categories: arctic

In my previous post (The Promise of the Waxworm) I discussed some of the ideas of secondary risk, applied lightly to concepts of sustainability and focused more on the definition of secondary and residual risk.  Consider this post a sequel.  In this post, I’d like to tie the concept a little more tightly to climate change to illustrate a rather extreme form of secondary risk which almost sounds like residual risk (leftover risk) because of the lengths of time involved.  However – it is indeed secondary risk – particularly secondary threat, perhaps a big one, as you’ll see.

You may want to be seated for this, it’s a bit alarming.  Are you seated?  Okay.  Proceed.

Let’s start with a quote from the BBC Earth article from which most of the inspiration for this blog post arrived.

scientists have discovered intact 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska's tundra. Smallpox and the bubonic plague are also likely buried in Siberia.”

And unfortunately, it is not just ‘scientists discovering’, or laboratories or rats.  It is about real people, suffering illness or even death from such problems.  As an example from the article:

"In August 2016, in a remote corner of Siberian tundra called the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle, a 12-year-old boy died and at least twenty people were hospitalised after being infected by anthrax.

The theory is that, over 75 years ago, a reindeer infected with anthrax died and its frozen carcass became trapped under a layer of frozen soil, known as permafrost. There it stayed until a heatwave in the summer of 2016, when the permafrost thawed.

This exposed the reindeer corpse and released infectious anthrax into nearby water and soil, and then into the food supply. More than 2,000 reindeer grazing nearby became infected, which then led to the small number of human cases."

So, yes.  This is about the fact that global warming (whatever the cause) and other activities are bringing back some ‘golden oldies’ and ‘one-hit wonders’ that we really, really didn’t want to hear ever again.

As a reminder, secondary risk is a new risk (usually a threat – and in this case, definitely a threat) caused by a risk treatment or risk response.   In this case, the new risk is actually not caused by a risk response, it is caused by global warming.  And here’s a little-known fact: global warming is occurring at a much faster rate and with more extreme effect in Arctic regions than anywhere else on the planet.

So for those of you who may say “so what?” to the melting ice, and even the sea-level rise, I’m not sure you’d say “so what?” to the rejuvenation of viruses and microbes for which current humans do not have any built-up immunity.

And in the BBC Earth article there are many examples – not just Spanish Flu.  More “oldies but goodies” include:

  •     Antrhax
  •     Smallpox
  •     Pithovirus sibericum (giant virus)
  •     Mollivirus sibericum (giant virus - see photo below)

Microbes live a long time when they’re properly frozen.  A really, really long time.  From the article:

Recently, scientists managed to revive an 8-million-year-old bacterium that had been lying dormant in ice, beneath the surface of a glacier in the Beacon and Mullins valleys of Antarctica.

The other thing to consider as a project manager – especially if you are involved in exploration, mining, or energy, is this:

“global warming does not have to directly melt permafrost to pose a threat. Because the Arctic sea ice is melting, the north shore of Siberia has become more easily accessible by sea. As a result, industrial exploitation, including mining for gold and minerals, and drilling for oil and natural gas, is now becoming profitable. At the moment, these regions are deserted and the deep permafrost layers are left alone.  However, these ancient layers could be exposed by the digging involved in mining and drilling operations."

Do you have this threat listed in your risk register?  You may want to at least consider it.  Sounds like science fiction but it turns out to be science fact – and that means it's a project management fact.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: May 06, 2017 04:50 PM | Permalink

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