Permafrost Contains a Dangerous Amount of Mercury

Researchers indicate that there is a dangerous amount of mercury in permafrost that could pose a great threat to humanity. Permafrost represents a thick subsurface layer of soil which is always below the freezing point the entire year. Scientists have developed a new study, and they have revealed that in the northern hemisphere, permafrost contains extremely high quantities of mercury. This can affect both human health and global ecosystems.

The exposure to mercury can trigger serious health problems. The research indicates that the largest reservoir of mercury in the world is the northern permafrost soils. It stores about twice as much mercury than all the other soils, oceans and the atmosphere combined. This is pretty unsettling since it appears to be a ticking bomb.

Scientists have measured the concentrations of mercury in permafrost cores from Alaska. In this way, they have estimated how much mercury has been trapped in permafrost north of the equator. Paul Schuster is a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado and he is also the lead author of the study. He claims that these findings completely change the way they’ve looked at the problem before.

They managed to quantify a massive amount of mercury which had not been done up to this point. The results of their new study help them better understand the global mercury cycle. Unfortunately, there is another threat. The warming temperature caused by global warming could melt the existing permafrost layer in the northern hemisphere. In case this occurs, the melting permafrost could release a huge amount of mercury.

Climate change may trigger permafrost meltdown

This dangerous chemical could affect the ecosystems worldwide. Generally, mercury accumulates in terrestrial and aquatic food chains. It has devastating reproductive and neurological effects on animals. Schuster indicates that the amount of mercury would not constitute a threat if everything were to remain frozen.

Unfortunately, the study did not focus on measuring the melting rate of permafrost. However, physics indicates that the thawing permafrost provides a potential for mercury to be released. These findings have great implications for understanding how our planet stores mercury and how it can impact environmental and human health. James Shanley is a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Montpelier, Vermont.

He claims that the new study truly reveals a big discovery in an area which researchers have ignored for many years. Permafrost is a massive source of mercury. In case climate change triggers its meltdown, then huge amounts of mercury could be released into the soil, water and atmosphere and everything will turn into a disaster.

Scientists explain that natural mercury from the atmosphere usually binds with organic material in the soil, remains buried in sediment and freezes into permafrost. The dangerous chemical remains trapped there for thousands of years if it is not liberated through the process of melting. Schuster together with his colleagues has established the total amount of mercury located in the permafrost by making use of field data.

The permafrost

In case high temperatures trigger permafrost thaw, the entire planet may be in danger.

The quantity of mercury in permafrost is alarmingly high

The study authors indicate that between 2004 and 2012 they have drilled 13 permafrost soil cores from different sites in Alaska. In this way, they have measured the total amounts of carbon and mercury in each core. They have selected different sites which had a diverse array of soil characteristics. In this way, they were able to represent the differences in permafrost found around the entire northern hemisphere.

Schuster indicates that their measurements appeared as consistent with the data published on mercury in permafrost and non-permafrost soils from other sites in the world. Then, they have used the values to find out the amount of mercury in permafrost in the northern hemisphere. Scientists also managed to develop a map of mercury concentrations in that area.

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The results of the study have indicated that 793 gigagrams or over 15 million gallons of mercury are frozen in northern permafrost soil. This is about ten times the amount of all human-determined mercury emissions from the last 30 years, relying on emissions estimates from 2016.

This new study also revealed all the frozen and unfrozen soil from the northern permafrost regions. They contain a combined 1,656 gigagrams of mercury. This is the biggest known reservoir of mercury ever discovered on the planet. However, scientists do not know for sure how much of this mercury could affect ecosystems case the permafrost melts.

The dangerous amount of mercury could affect the entire planet

Researchers still need to find out how much of this mercury could leach out of the soil into the nearby waterways. Steve Sebestyen is a research hydrologist at the USDA Forest Service in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. He indicates that in case the mercury gets transported across waterways, many organisms could take it up and transform it into methylmercury.

This particular form of mercury is a terrible toxin which has a lot of negative effects on animals, causing birth defects and motor impairment. Sebestyen indicates that this study also treats important human health and social aspect. If this type of mercury is released into the environment, it could have catastrophic consequences. Mercury can travel up the food chain and affect numerous species.

Edda Mutter is the science director for the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. She indicates that the new research shows that the melting permafrost could destroy indigenous communities and local ecosystems from the northern hemisphere. Mutter also said that in Alaska and several other northern locations, rural communities have a subsistence lifestyle.

Mercury may contaminate their food supply. Hence, the study has great economic and health implications for this particular region of the world. If mercury reaches the atmosphere, it will travel large distances. In this way, it could affect the ecosystems and communities thousands of miles away from the release site.

Summing up

The effects of climate change could affect the planet even more. In case high temperatures manage to cause permafrost melting, then all the mercury stored there would be released. If the dangerous amount of mercury contaminates the atmosphere, water, and soil, then it will affect numerous ecosystems. Therefore, we need to diminish the use of fossil fuels to cut down on dangerous emissions and prevent dangerous climate change effects.

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William E. Eubanks
 

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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