Climate science denier and conspiracy theorist Jim Steele is arguing that a recent outbreak of deadly anthrax in northern Russia was not caused in the way it was caused.
Now, Jim is not a Big Name Celebrity. He’s an occasional blogger at the conspiracy website WattsUpWithThat, and he’s the author of a self-published book describing his personal journey from, oh never mind, it’s boring.
Since Jim isn’t any sort of famous or influential dude, one might ask, why do I care what he’s arguing? The answer is that I try to keep up on climate denialist memes. What we’re doing to the climate matters. People dedicated to making sure we keep doing it also matter. As informed citizens, we need to be aware of the fraudulent arguments they use to keep the damage happening. We need to be aware so we can respond in the public arena.
Why would a climate science denier care about an anthrax outbreak? Where’s the connection? Therein lies a tale.
The Story Unfolds
CNN reported in late July on an outbreak of anthrax in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District in north-central Russia. See the area outlined in red on the map below. The place the outbreak occurred was in the Yamal Peninsula, in the northern part of the region, circled below in blue. At the time of the CNN report, over twelve hundred reindeer had died unexpectedly. It was initially thought they’d died from an unusual run of heat.
This summer, you see, there was a heat wave in this extreme northern region, with temperatures up to 35 degrees Celsius, which is 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, you read that right. That’s an unusually warm temperature there, even in the summer, in a region that borders the Arctic Ocean, a region farther north than Hudson Bay. most of it above the Arctic Circle. As you can see on the map, the southern border of Yamalo-Nenets is as far north as Iceland. It’s like a more inland version of Scandinavia, but shifted northward a bit.
Ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit is not normal there. It’s lots hotter than average. This heat wave was, in fact, 10C (18F) hotter than average. That’s significant. Maybe all those reindeer died from excessive heat.
The dead reindeer were not the only causalities. By the time of the CNN report, thirteen people had been hospitalized and two of them (a 12-year-old boy and his grandmother) eventually died. By then, the Russian Ministry of Agriculture had gotten involved, and their laboratories revealed the sick and dying reindeer and the deaths of the boy and the old woman were all as a result of an outbreak of anthrax. In all, over 2,300 reindeer would die, and more than 90 people would be hospitalized.
It is fortunate the region is sparsely populated, or the deadly event could have been a much larger calamity. This was the first outbreak of anthrax in the region since 1941. There had been no detected presence in the area of the Bacillus anthracis bacteria which causes the disease since 1968.
A team was dispatched to find the source. Officials began vaccinating reindeer against anthrax in late July, and immediately enforced an evacuation of the nomadic herders, a total of 328 people, including 132 children. That wasn’t enough. Before the outbreak was contained, 24 people of the Nenets tribe contracted the disease, and over 2,300 of their herd of reindeer died. Thousands of people had to relocate.
What would cause this sudden outbreak? Early on, the deaths of the reindeer were blamed on the extreme heat. Could that have anything to do with it?
Why, yes. Yes, it could. But first, some context.
Enter the Heat
July of 2016 wasn’t merely hot in a single district of northern Russia. It was hot worldwide. The Yamalo-Nenets district of Russia happened to be near one of the places that was highest above its average temperature, but the whole world experienced extreme heat in July of 2016.
July set a new record for the hottest July in the history of record keeping. More than that, since the Earth tends to be hottest during the northern hemisphere summer, July of 2016 was the hottest month ever, of any month in the history of, well, history.
In the NASA GISS temperate data set, this is the tenth-in-a-row hottest month ever. October of 2015 was the hottest October ever; November of 2015 was the hottest November ever; straight through to July of 2016 as the hottest July. Ten-in-a-row hottest months.
The year 2016 is increasingly likely to be the hottest year ever, replacing 2015 as the hottest year, which replaced 2014 as the hottest year. That makes three in a row hottest years ever. The 2010s are likely to be the hottest decade ever, beating out the 2000s which exceeded the record set by the 1990s which beat the 1980s, marking four-in-a-row hottest decades in human history. (My thanks to Sou at HotWhopper for stressing this series of hottest months / years / decades.)
You’d think this extreme heat would have some noticeable impacts here and there. You’d be right. One of the effects of the extreme heat this year, this July, is that in areas of the Yamalo-Nenets District of northern Russia the permafrost is melting.
This is a region where it is so cold that the ground has frozen solid, in some places down to one thousand feet (more than three hundred meters) below the surface, as far down as the Empire State Building is tall. Animals that die, out on the tundra, fall to the ground, and if they are not eaten their carcasses will freeze and become covered in snow and simply stay there. Native inhabitants do not bury their dead, because they cannot; the ground is frozen too hard. The dead are placed in wooden boxes and left on the ground in areas designated as graveyards.
For the first time in three million years, the permafrost is melting.
Even as early as late July when CNN reported the outbreak of anthrax, Russian health officials suspected the thawing ground might be the ultimate cause. One promising theory was that bodies in the abandoned cemetery in Halmer had begun to thaw, and the disease had spread from someone who had died from an infection many years ago. No anthrax bacteria was found in the thawing soil of the graveyard however.
A more likely theory was that an animal, possibly a reindeer, had died back when anthrax was still live in the region, sometime before or during World War II. It had frozen, but with the excessive heat of 2016, it had thawed. Other animals, stressed by that same heat, fed on its body and contracted the disease, spreading it from there. People who eat the meat of these animals can also sicken, and many of them will die without treatment.
This second is the theory that has been settled upon. The carcass of an animal that died from anthrax in the first half of the 20th century has thawed, and the disease has spread from there.
Now, enter Jim Steele. It seems petty and almost criminal to bring such a minor actor into this tale of real disaster and real danger. But he matters, because this story isn’t over yet. It is, after all, a story about global warming, and from that story we can’t ignore the voices telling us to ignore global warming.
On Anthony Watts’ conspiracy blog, Jim Steele wrote a guest piece (archived here) intended to offer his own alternative explanations, because Jim Steele doesn’t believe in global warming, and is a conspiracy theorist who thinks that NASA creates “imaginary data” and that all of the odd things we’ve seen in global temperatures can be explained by “natural variation”.
He begins his article with a series of insults directed toward anyone who accepts the reality of anthropogenic climate change, calling them “uncritical thinkers and paranoid doomsayers.” But he’s writing for a denialist conspiracy blog, so meat thrown to his audience is understandable. He tries to give some historical context for his view that this outbreak is nothing unusual after all:
Despite the fact that early 20th century Siberian anthrax outbreaks had killed more than a million reindeer, earning anthrax the nickname the Siberian Plague, climate doomsayers are shamelessly blaming global warming for the reemergence of anthrax in Yamal.
Of course, the Bubonic Plague was all the rage in Europe at one time. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t view its re-emergence as newsworthy. Smallpox and polio were scourges even in the United States as recently as the twentieth century. The point is, these diseases have been eradicated, as anthrax had been in Yamal. Something unusual would be needed for them to reappear.
Jim Steele has a theory about why us climate alarmists care about this particular incident, something that has nothing to do with climate change:
Perhaps due to racism or lack of permafrost, climate alarmists ignore Zimbabwe’s 1978 anthrax outbreak affecting over 10,000 humans!
His ugly accusation is that people who accept the reality of climate change can’t be bothered with black people who live in Africa. He’s unaware that quite apart from the question of human suffering (which we poor benighted liberals actually do care about), the issue in Yamal has more to do with the global threats to climate. When talking specifically about climate, Zimbabwe in 1978 was not an issue. That he has a hard time understanding this is perhaps telling.
Then after complaining that “alarmists” didn’t see a climate connection to the Zimbabwe anthrax outbreak in 1978, he complains that some did see a climate change connection to the extinction of the Golden Toad, an amphibian from Costa Rica. It’s hard to see if his purpose was to imply that “alarmists” care more about toads than about Zimbabweans, or if it was an excuse to include a link to his self-published book in which he has a passage devoted to this topic. No matter. In either case, it’s a distraction, included to help prime the pump for his readers to think “alarmists” are wrong, leading to a larger denial of global warming.
After all, if they were wrong about toads, they’ve got to be wrong about reindeer, right?
Strike One – It’s the Vaccines!
So Jim Steele offers three “alternative explanations” for the July outbreak of anthrax in
the Yamal Peninsula. The first is that the Russian government stopped vaccinating reindeer for anthrax.
In the early 20th century the USSR initiated a widespread vaccination program to end Anthrax (aka the Siberia Plague) to prevent historical epidemics that had devastated humans and reindeer during much colder times. However anthrax vaccinations are only good for one year and must be renewed every year. But such programs are costly.
After having wiped out the disease in the area, they used their scarce resources to continue vaccinating in other areas. Jim Steele then asks,
Should anyone be surprised by the re-emergence of anthrax back to pre-vaccination historical levels in the Yamal region?
The answer to that is, yes. Yes they should be surprised. Infectious diseases are not caused by the absence of a vaccine. They are caused by the presence of a pathogen. Apparently Jim Steele doesn’t know that anthrax is caused by a bacteria.
So, Jim Steele’s first alternative explanation that has nothing to do with global warming is that the Yamal outbreak of anthrax was caused by the cessation, in 2007, of the program to vaccinate against the disease. Amusingly, as evidence that climate change had nothing to do with it, Jim Steele links to this story from the website Russia Behind the Headlines (RBTH), which has the following legend on its opening graphic:
As global warming melts the permafrost, anthrax and other pathogens arise from their centuries-old slumber
Hmmmm. Maybe Jim Steele doesn’t look at the pages he links.
Strike Two – It’s the Rains!
As his second alternative explanation, Jim Steele recommends “Overgrazing.” He tells us:
Anthrax is a bacterium that naturally lives in the soil. Overgrazing increases contact with the bacteria and contribute to outbreaks.
To back up this idea, he links to a site that describes an anthrax outbreak in Canada in July of 2006. He quotes from the article:
“Anthrax outbreaks often occur following heavy rains, which can push long-hidden spores into new, more accessible grazing locations, or drought, when animals graze closer to the contaminated soil.”
Note that this passage blames “heavy rains” or “drought”, not “overgrazing.” In fact, the term “overgrazing” doesn’t appear anywhere in the linked article. That doesn’t prevent Jim Steele from jumping to this non sequitur:
Likewise [sic] in the recent Russian outbreak scientists bemoaned, “The excess reindeer population is another problem. More than 700,000 reindeer live in the Yamal region – 44 percent of Russia’s total herd. Scientists say that the region’s pastures are big enough only for 100-150,000 animals.
(The quoted passage in the paragraph above is from the RBTH article. By not repeating the link, unwary readers may think the authors of the article about Canada drew the unwarranted connection for which Jim Steele is responsible.)
There were no “heavy rains” or”drought” reported in Yamal in any of the articles Jim linked. If there had been, that would have been more evidence for climate change. Annual precipitation there is usually on the order of 300-500 millimeters (about 10 to 15 inches), virtually all of it as snow.
While it is possible for reindeer to contract anthrax from vegetation deeply rooted in the ground (as happened in the Canadian outbreak), we’d only expect that if the ground thawed. The ground would only sufficiently thaw in Yamal if it got way warm due to global warming. Even then, there would have to be evidence of anthrax spores in the ground–which, remember, researchers did not find.
Jim Steele’s second alternative proposal is wrong in its face (his confusion between heavy rains and overgrazing). But in so far as it is even possible, it relies on the ground warming up (thus putting the finger on climate change), and even then, only if there were anthrax spores to be eaten (which were not found).
Strike Three – It’s the Rooskies!
The crown jewel of Jim Steele’s alternative explanations is the one on which he spends the most time, being the conspiracy theorist he is. The former Soviet Union once had an active bioweapons research program. An international treaty was signed in 1972 meant to end bioweapons research, but apparently either some of the materials from their program remained in storage, or the program itself secretly continued for some time. In any case, according to an article Jim Steele found on Wikipedia, there was an accidental release of anthrax spores in 1979, resulting in nearly 70 deaths. (To be fair, Jim also links this article from George Washington University, which supports most of the Wikipedia piece.)
Jim insists there was a conspiracy to cover it up, and implies (but does not say) that the program, or its materials, still exist today. He implies (but does not say) that he thinks this is the source of the anthrax in the latest outbreak. He doesn’t say it, because there is zero evidence for it, and it would require all the researchers currently in Yamal to be in on the conspiracy.
Never mind that the 1979 incident took place over a thousand miles away–over mountains and tundra, with little or no chance of the spores making the trip. Jim said elsewhere it was in the same “region,” by which he apparently means “planet.”
Jim closes with this declaration:
Despite hundreds of years of documented natural anthrax outbreaks, and despite undeniable evidence of Russian bioweaponry development of anthrax and its careless disposal, alarmists now believe any recent anthrax outbreaks must be due to global warming.
No, Jim. Only anthrax outbreaks that are provably due to global warming will be blamed on global warming.
Why it Matters
Clearly, Jim Steele is not someone of any influence whose opinion should matter to anyone. What does matter is that he is a symptom of a larger disease. If his was the only voice insisting humans aren’t altering the climate, no one would (or should) care. The problem is that he’s not (yet) alone.
The Yamal incident should warn us about other possible unforeseen deadly consequences of climate change. We need to think outside the coffin. There are many dangers ahead. As we are warned in an article by Rebecca Kreston at Discover Magazine, as the northern climate continues to warm,
The microbial ecology of the region will dramatically shift as well, increasing the likelihood of dangerous infections transmitted between man and animal, such as anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, rabies, and certain tick-borne viruses…
Graves of smallpox victims from the 17th and 18th centuries could thaw, and almost certainly will. There may be other viruses and bacteria from still more ancient times. Who knows what may be found in the thawing carcass of a woolly mammoth? There could be bugs that humans have never encountered, and to which we have no immunity.
On a less speculative note, a cold-war-era facility embedded in the Greenland ice sheet is likely to thaw, and would release radioactive waste, and many other toxic substances. This is a waiting disaster that is manmade in two ways: 1) we put the crap there, and 2) we are causing the ice to thaw.
The far north is not the only place about which we should be concerned. Tropical diseases and tropical pests are moving out of the tropics. The outbreak of mosquito-borne Zika virus now plaguing southern portions of the United States is one direct result.
Portions of North Africa and the Middle East are already virtually uninhabitable for at least part of the year, with temperatures over 122F (50C). As if that area of the world wasn’t sufficiently unstable already. There is an arguable link between climate change and the recent rise of international terrorism.
In the Himalayas, glacier melt-off provides freshwater for over a billion people. Those glaciers are vanishing. There will be massive dislocation, maybe wars over freshwater. Many of the nations affected (by lack of water, by the deluge of refugees, or both)–India, Pakistan, China, and parts of Russia–are nuclear powers.
All told, there are likely to be billions of climate refugees within the next century.
And that doesn’t include the more usual disasters of the sort most of us are already aware–rising sea levels, bleaching corals, stronger storm surges, increased acidification of the ocean, changing growing seasons, more common and more severe droughts, and so on.
In addition to all these well-discussed dangers, there are other, more subtle disasters on our horizons, things we know will happen–as well as things we haven’t even yet imagined.
And I didn’t even mention the methane released from thawing permafrost or from the bottom of warming oceans.
People like climate science denier and conspiracy theorist Jim Steele want us to ignore what’s coming. We can’t afford to let that happen.