Tags: mercury | permafrost | toxic | thaw

Mercury in Permafrost a Threat as Land Thaws, Study Says

Mercury in Permafrost a Threat as Land Thaws, Study Says

Permafrost as seen in northern Alaska in the springtime. (Bounder32h/Dreamstime.com)

By    |   Thursday, 08 February 2018 01:47 PM

Mercury trapped in Arctic permafrost could pose a serious risk to humans and the environment, a new study has found.

Massive amounts of mercury are naturally occurring in the icy frozen north, but with climate change warming the land, the permafrost is melting and scientists worry that this could result in significant quantities of the pollutant being released into the atmosphere, the study, published Monday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, said.

"Prior to the start of the study, people assumed permafrost contained little to no mercury," said study co-author Kevin Schaefer of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, according to National Geographic. "But it turns out that not only is there mercury in permafrost, it's also the biggest pool of mercury on the planet."

The study documents how researchers targeted various sites in Alaska, where they drilled through 13 permafrost soil cores between 2004 and 2012.

The amount of mercury and carbon occurring in each sample was then measured and compared to samples of other soil cores taken from sites around the world, Live Science noted.

Based on their findings, researchers concluded that there was more than 15 million gallons of mercury stored below ground in North America.

As the permafrost begins to thaw, the mercury is released into the ecosystem and could accumulate in aquatic and terrestrial food chains, causing harmful neurological and reproductive effects on animals and humans.

"There would be no environmental problem if everything remained frozen, but we know the Earth is getting warmer," Paul Schuster, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado, and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

"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."

Schaefer said the permafrost was inevitably going to thaw and that at least some of the mercury would be released. How much is not known, but the next phase of research would crunch those numbers.

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Large amounts of mercury buried in the Arctic permafrost could threaten humans and the environment as the planet warms, according to a new study.
mercury, permafrost, toxic, thaw
Thursday, 08 February 2018 01:47 PM
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