World's Largest Mercury Reserve Found Underneath Arctic Permafrost, And Climate Change Will Release It All

By Aaron Mamiit | Feb 07, 2018 06:22 AM EST

The world's largest reserve of natural mercury was found hidden underneath Arctic permafrost, but the discovery comes with the realization that climate change could release the toxic element.

Research from about a year ago warned that increasing temperatures and rainfall due to climate change may lead to heavy land runoff. This would lead to increased levels of mercury in the ocean and its creatures, as high as seven times the current rate. The new study shows another way on how climate change will expose humanity to mercury poisoning.

Mercury In Arctic Permafrost

In a new study, published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal, researchers discovered that the Arctic permafrost holds the richest reserve of mercury in the world, with a total of 15 million gallons. To illustrate, that amount is 10 times more compared to all the man-made mercury emissions in the past 30 years and over twice the mercury found on the Earth's soils, oceans, and atmosphere.

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The researchers took core samples from the permafrost in Alaska to study how much mercury remains trapped in the region, hidden since the last ice age. Permafrost is defined as any soil that has remained frozen for over two years, and in the northern hemisphere, that accounts for around 8.8 million square miles of land, or 24 percent of the exposed Earth.

Over time, compounds that occur naturally in the atmosphere, such as mercury and carbon dioxide, may bind with the organic material found in the soil and be frozen into the permafrost, remaining trapped until the permafrost thaws.

Permafrost Thawing Due To Climate Change

The researchers who found the massive amounts of mercury in the Arctic permafrost also warned of the danger related to their discovery. This is because with the Earth getting warmer due to climate change, it raises the concern that the permafrost will thaw and unleash the mercury into the world.

Mercury has harmful effects on the reproductive and neurological systems of animals, and may accumulate within both terrestrial and aquatic food chains. As the mercury accumulates through the food chain, it will eventually reach humans, which is a very dangerous thing especially for pregnant women.

The exact figures of when the mercury will be released into the world and how much has not yet been determined, as this information were not the focus of the study. However, the message is clear: if we want to keep the mercury hidden underneath the Arctic permafrost, we need to do something about climate change.

"The best option for managing these permafrost-related risks is to keep the permafrost — and the carbon and mercury contained in permafrost — frozen, through immediate reduction of fossil fuel emissions," said Woods Hole Research Center permafrost expert Sue Natali.

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