The Melting Of Arctic Permafrost Could Release A ‘Mercury Apocalypse’

There’s a ticking time bomb composed of Mercury hidden beneath our planets Permafrost. Scientists warn that climate change could accelerate the release of toxic Mercury, and it’s worrying.

Despite the fact that Mercury has a lot of good uses, its toxic to humans and animals and can pose a great threat to our planet’s ecosystems.

As melting permafrost releases mercury, eventually some of it will make it into the food chain—and into animals such as the Alaskan caribou. As noted by National Geographic, “in some forms, mercury is a powerful neurotoxin, and in children it can harm brain development, affecting cognition, memory, language and even motor and visual skills. Even in adults, excessive amounts can hamper vision, speech and muscle movements, compromise the reproductive and immune systems, and cause cardiovascular problems.”

If global warming ends up melting the permafrost—the permanently frozen surface layer of the northern hemisphere—it could trigger a global ecological catastrophe, since this area contains more than 15 million gallons (58 million liters) of mercury buried according to a group of researchers.

This is a worrisome fact because this is roughly twice as much mercury as can be found in the rest of Earth’s soils, ocean and atmosphere combined, reports Live Science.

Concentrations of mercury in the Northern Hemisphere, in four soil layers.(Credit: Schuster et al./GRL/AGU.)

“Our results indicate the active layer alone represents the largest [mercury] reservoir on the planet,” says the study, published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal.

“The active layer and permafrost together contain nearly twice as much [mercury] as all other soils, the ocean, and the atmosphere combined.”

Natural mercury comes from the atmosphere and is chemically linked with organic substances in the northern soils, recalls the study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

A team of researchers from the US Geological Survey analyzed 13 ice samples taken in Alaska between 2004 and 2012 and compared them with 11,000 samples of tundra soil in various parts of the world.

The analysis revealed that permafrost contains 10 times more mercury than that expelled into the atmosphere by human activity in the past 30 years.

“There would be no environmental problem if everything remained frozen, but we know the Earth is getting warmer,” study author Paul Schuster, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. “This discovery is a game-changer.”

“Twenty-four percent of all the soil above the equator is permafrost, and it has this huge pool of locked-up mercury. 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,” added Schuster.

“There’s a significant social and human health aspect to this study,” said Steve Sebestyen, a research hydrologist at the USDA Forest Service in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

“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.”

Featured image credit: V.Schaal/Shutterstock

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