Immense Amount of Mercury Found in the Northern Permafrost, Posing Threats to Human Health

There’s a potent chance that this revelation will return in the coverage of a significant news story in the future. Mercury isn’t the only danger hidden in the permafrost, of course, as greenhouse gases such as methane are also found there too. And as methane traps about 86 times more heat than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide does, that makes its potential of escalating climate change worrisome.

Mercury though is yet another confirmation that climate change is a truly serious problem that must be addressed. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to find other worrying threats waiting to be melted in the permafrost either.

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Researchers have discovered permafrost in the northern hemisphere stores massive amounts of natural mercury, a finding with significant implications for human health and ecosystems worldwide.

In a new study, scientists measured mercury concentrations in permafrost cores from Alaska and estimated how much mercury has been trapped in permafrost north of the equator since the last Ice Age.

The study reveals northern permafrost soils are the largest reservoir of mercury on the planet, storing nearly twice as much mercury as all other soils, the ocean and the atmosphere combined.

The new study was published today in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

“This discovery is a game-changer,” said Paul Schuster, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado and lead author of the new study. “We’ve quantified a pool of mercury that had not been done previously, and the results have profound implications for better understanding the global mercury cycle.”

Warmer air temperatures due to climate change could thaw much of the existing permafrost layer in the northern hemisphere. This thawing permafrost could release a large amount of mercury that could potentially affect ecosystems around the world. Mercury accumulates in aquatic and terrestrial food chains, and has harmful neurological and reproductive effects on animals.

“There would be no environmental problem if everything remained frozen, but we know the Earth is getting warmer,” Schuster said. “Although measurement of the rate of permafrost thaw was not part of this study, the thawing permafrost provides a potential for mercury to be released — that’s just physics.”

The new findings have major implications for understanding how Earth stores mercury and for human and environmental health, according to James Shanley, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Montpelier, Vermont, who was not involved with the new research.

“This study is very novel and makes a big discovery in an area that was previously somewhat ignored,” Shanley said. “It shows permafrost represents a huge source of mercury, and if it thaws due to climate change the mercury could be released and could significantly add to the global mercury burden.”

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The study found approximately 793 gigagrams, or more than 15 million gallons, of mercury is frozen in northern permafrost soil. That is roughly 10 times the amount of all human-caused mercury emissions over the last 30 years, based on emissions estimates from 2016.

The study also found all frozen and unfrozen soil in northern permafrost regions contains a combined 1,656 gigagrams of mercury, making it the largest known reservoir of mercury on the planet. This pool houses nearly twice as much mercury as soils outside of the northern permafrost region, the ocean and the atmosphere combined.

The effects of the released mercury

Scientists are still unsure how much of the stored mercury would affect ecosystems if the permafrost were to thaw. One major question revolves around how much of the mercury would leach out of the soil into surrounding waterways, according to Steve Sebestyen, a research hydrologist at the USDA Forest Service in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, who was not involved with the new research.

If the mercury is transported across waterways, it could be taken up by microorganisms and transformed into methylmercury, he said. This form of mercury is a dangerous toxin that causes neurological effects in animals ranging from motor impairment to birth defects.

“There’s a significant social and human health aspect to this study,” Sebestyen said. “The consequences of this mercury being released into the environment are potentially huge because mercury has health effects on organisms and can travel up the food chain, adversely affecting native and other communities.”

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The release of mercury could also have far-reaching global consequences, according to Shanley. Mercury released into the atmosphere can travel large distances and could affect communities and ecosystems thousands of miles away from the release site, he said.

Schuster believes his team’s research gives policymakers and scientists new numbers to work with and calibrate their models as they begin to study this new phenomenon in more detail. He intends to release another study modeling the release of mercury from permafrost due to climate change, and said this work changes scientists’ perspective of the global mercury cycle.

“24 percent of all the soil above the equator is permafrost, and it has this huge pool of locked-up mercury,” he said. “What happens if the permafrost thaws? How far will the mercury travel up the food chain? These are big-picture questions that we need to answer.”

Permafrost in the Arctic is Thawing Faster Than Ever

Another reminder that humans need to seriously address climate change.

Permafrost in the Arctic is thawing faster than ever, according to a new US government report that also found Arctic seawater is warming and sea ice is melting at the fastest pace in 1,500 years.

The annual report released on Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed slightly less warming in many measurements than a record hot 2016. But scientists remain concerned because the far northern region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe and has reached a level of warming that’s unprecedented in modern times.

“2017 continued to show us we are on this deepening trend where the Arctic is a very different place than it was even a decade ago,” said Jeremy Mathis, head of NOAA’s Arctic research program and co-author of the 93-page report.

Findings were discussed at the American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic; it affects the rest of the planet,” said acting NOAA chief Timothy Gallaudet. “The Arctic has huge influence on the world at large.”

Permafrost records show the frozen ground that many buildings, roads and pipelines are built on reached record warm temperatures last year nearing and sometimes exceeding the thawing point. That could make them vulnerable when the ground melts and shifts, the report said. Unlike other readings, permafrost data tend to lag a year.

Preliminary reports from the US and Canada in 2017 showed permafrost temperatures are “again the warmest for all sites” measured in North America, said study co-author Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

Arctic sea ice usually shrinks in September and this year it was only the eighth lowest on record for the melting season. But scientists said they were most concerned about what happens in the winter – especially March – when sea ice is supposed to be building to its highest levels.

Arctic winter sea ice maximum levels in 2017 were the smallest they’ve ever been for the season when ice normally grows. It was the third straight year of record low winter sea ice recovery. Records go back to 1979.

About 79% of the Arctic sea ice is thin and only a year old. In 1985, 45% of the sea ice in the Arctic was thick, older ice, said NOAA Arctic scientist Emily Osborne.

New research looking into the Arctic’s past using ice cores, fossils, corals and shells as stand-ins for temperature measurements show that Arctic ocean temperatures are rising and sea ice levels are falling at rates not seen in the 1,500 years. And those dramatic changes coincide with the large increase in carbon dioxide levels in the air, the report said.

This isn’t just a concern for the few people who live north of the Arctic circle. Changes in the Arctic can alter fish supply. And more ice-free Arctic summers can lead to countries competing to exploit new areas for resources. Research also shows changes in Arctic sea ice and temperature can alter the jet stream, which is a major factor in US weather.

This is probably partly responsible for the current unusual weather in the United States that brought destructive wildfires to California and a sharp cold snap to the south and east, according to NOAA scientist James Overland and private meteorologist expert Judah Cohen.

“The Arctic has traditionally been the refrigerator to the planet, but the door of the refrigerator has been left open,” Mathis said.

Outside scientists praised the report card.

“Overall, the new data fit with the long-term trends, showing the clear evidence of warming causing major changes,” in the Arctic, said Pennsylvania State University ice scientist Richard Alley.