Over the past weekend, “apocalyptic” wildfires engulfed a Scottish island where government scientists once conducted biological warfare experiments with anthrax.
Gruinard Island off the northwest coast of Scotland was ablaze from “one end to the other” on the night of Saturday, March 26, with eyewitnesses describing the scene as “apocalyptic,” according to BBC News. By Sunday, flames had largely subsided on the 2-kilometer (1.2 miles) long uninhabited island, but much of the land was left charred and gently smoking.
Sleepy islands off the coast of Scotland aren’t known for their eventful pasts, but the recent wildfires are just the latest chapter in the surprisingly busy history of this island.
During the Second World War, Gruinard Island was the site of a biological warfare experiment carried out by British military scientists who were toying with the idea of using anthrax against Nazi Germany. One of these potential plots, sinisterly known as “Operation Vegetarian,” would have involved dropping linseed cakes containing anthrax bacterial spores over the cattle fields of Germany with the aim of wiping out their food supply, as well as indiscriminately infecting thousands of civilians with the bacteria.
Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis that can be spread by the bacterium’s spores. The bacterium normally rests in spore form soil, and can survive for decades in this state, ready to infect an unsuspecting victim. It can result in a potentially fatal infection that can cause an array of symptoms depending on which part of the body is infected. If the skin is infected, it can cause blisters, bumps, and sores, but inhaling the bacteria can lead to fever, coughing, confusion, intense sweating, and extreme tiredness.
When inhaled, it’s lethal. It is fatal in almost all cases, even with treatment.
After hearing rumors that the Axis powers were thinking about using anthrax as a biological weapon, a highly secret group of government scientists was put together by the UK Ministry of Defense to assess the feasibility and hazard of anthrax as a biological warfare agent.
By 1942, Gruinard island, found in the UK’s most uninhabited corner, was picked out as the perfect site. The victims were an unfortunate flock of 80 sheep that were taken to the island. As you can see in declassified footage of the experiment, the animals were placed in unusual stocks so they were unable to move and positioned with their heads facing the location of the bomb denotation. In the summer of 1942, a 13.6-kilogram (30-pound) bomb containing Bacillus anthracis was dropped on the island, followed by a smaller 1.8 kilogram (4-pound) bomb the following year.
Lo and behold, the sheep all died in the following days after contracting anthrax. A team of scientists, donned in somewhat creepy HAZMAT protective suits, ventured to the island and analyzed the sheep, dissecting their bodies to understand the effects of the disease. Once studied, the bodies were chucked into a make-shift incinerator on the island.
The year after WW2 ended, the UK government agreed to acquire the island and promptly put it under quarantine. It wasn’t until 1986 scientists returned to the island, vaccinated against anthrax and dressed in protective clothing, to properly decontaminate the area by spraying the top layer of soil with seawater and formaldehyde. They also tested rabbits on the island for antibodies to anthrax and detected none, suggesting they had not been exposed to the bacteria.
Following these efforts, a report in 1988 concluded: “[W]e believe that the chances of persons or animals contracting anthrax on Gruinard Island are so remote that the island can be returned to civil use”. Two years later, the island was handed back to the heirs of the original owner for a price of £500. It was declared free of anthrax by the Ministry of Defence in April 1990. Nevertheless, the land remains uninhabited by humans to this day. [BBC, IFLScience]
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