The permafrost soils of the Arctic and near-Arctic regions store more mercury than all of the rest of the world’s soils, the oceans, and the atmosphere combined, two times over, new research detailed in a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters as found.
“This discovery is a game-changer,” explained researcher Paul Schuster, a hydrologist at the US Geological Survey in Boulder (Colorado). “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.”
What that means in blunter terms is that as the permafrost of the Arctic continues thawing there will be massive amounts of mercury released into the wider environment. Given that mercury bioaccumulates relatively easily (and causes neurological and endocrine system damage in the form of methylmercury), these releases could have profound impacts in affected regions.
“24% of all the soil above the equator is permafrost, and it has this huge pool of locked-up mercury,” Schuster continued. “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.”
The press release provides more:
“Schuster’s team determined the total amount of mercury locked up in permafrost using field data. Between 2004 and 2012, the study authors drilled 13 permafrost soil cores from various sites in Alaska, and measured the total amounts of mercury and carbon in each core. They selected sites with a diverse array of soil characteristics to best represent permafrost found around the entire northern hemisphere.”
“Schuster and his colleagues found their measurements were consistent with published data on mercury in non-permafrost and permafrost soils from thousands of other sites worldwide. They then used their observed values to calculate the total amount of mercury stored in permafrost in the northern hemisphere and create a map of mercury concentrations in the region.”
Altogether, the research found that northern permafrost soils contain over 15 million gallons of mercury (793 gigagrams); and that northern soils regardless of permafrost status contain at least 1,656 gigagrams of mercury. Northern soils are thus far and away the largest mercury reservoir in the world.
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