WHAT’S BEING CLAIMED:
- On Monday, scientists revealed that melting permafrost could release large volumes of mercury which is seriously harmful to human health.
- There is more mercury trapped in the permafrost, the Arctic’s frozen soil, than the rest of all soils, the atmosphere, and ocean combined.
- As humans make the climate warmer, they endanger melting the permafrost, releasing carbon that would worsen global warming further, expediting the thawing of the Arctic.
Permafrost is “a thick layer of soil that is permanently frozen throughout the year.” In a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, U.S. government scientists wrote that the Arctic’s permafrost contains 32 million gallons worth of toxic mercury.
Mercury is a toxic metallic element produced when humans burn coal. Although naturally occurring it is damaging to both humans and wildlife.
Kevin Schaefer, a co-author of the study and a scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado said: “As permafrost thaws in the future, some portion of this mercury will get released into the environment, with unknown impact to people and our food supplies.”
The research, led by Paul Schuster, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was performed by taking samples from permafrost across Alaska. Mercury levels were measured and then extrapolated to find out how much mercury is stored in permafrost worldwide.
“We figure that this represents the buildup of mercury during and since the last Ice Age,” Schaefer explained.
When plants decompose, mercury is released back into the atmosphere. But most plants do not completely decompose in the Arctic. Their roots froze and then become buried suspending mercury within them. When the permafrost melts, mercury can be released.
Permafrost melting has started in some areas and considering the current emissions levels, scientists predict that it will continue over the course of the century. By the year 2100, permafrost could reduce to 30 to 99 percent.
Mercury released could be flushed out through rivers into the Arctic Ocean and/or it could enter the atmosphere. The scientists say they are not certain.
“We expect a bunch of it to be released, but we don’t know exactly how much, and when, and where it will be released,” Schaefer said.
When mercury reaches any form of water, it enters the food chain. For instance, fish could feed off smaller organisms that accumulated toxic mercury. And when humans eat mercury-loaded fish in large quantities, it can be hazardous, particularly to pregnant women.
Source: National Post