Toxic Mercury Reserves May Contaminate Earth As Arctic Permafrost Continues To Melt

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As the ice in the Arctic permafrost continues to melt, scientists found an alarming amount of toxic mercury stores underneath the ice.

In a study published in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers from the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center revealed the alarming toxic mercury deposits in the Arctic. The heavy metal stores are ten times greater than the amount of mercury pumped into the atmosphere by burning coal and pollution for the past three decades.

As climate change warms the planet, a significant portion of this toxic substance could make its way to the atmosphere and, ultimately, to the food web. Study co-author Kevin Schaefer revealed the highlights of their research.

“Prior to the start of the study, people assumed permafrost contained little to no mercury. But it turns out that not only is there mercury in permafrost, it’s also the biggest pool of mercury on the planet.”

Paul Schuster, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the lead author for the study expounds that this is a “game-changer for mercury.”

While the presence of the mercury deposit has been confirmed, there are no clues as to how much mercury will be released or when it will be transformed into a form that is harmful to humankind.

Nature’s Brand Of Poison

Mercury is a naturally occurring element. It is released during rock weathering, forest fires, and volcanic eruptions.

About 67 percent of the mercury in the atmosphere is from human activities, namely, mining, coal-burning, and medical waste. Mercury in the atmosphere makes it back to the earth’s surface, both on land and in water.

Sometimes, mercury ends up in the food chain. This is one reason behind advisories warning people against consuming fish caught close to polluted streams and rivers.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin. In children, it may affect cognition, brain development, and impaired visual and motor skills. Memory and language impairment is also possible. Adults may also experience speech and visual problems, and impaired muscle movement after consuming animals contaminated with high amounts of mercury.

Expecting mothers and children are advised against eating fishes with long life spans such as swordfish and tuna for this reason.

Mercury Deposits In The North

As reported by National Geographic, Schuster has been studying mercury for decades and based on a study made from 2004 to 2012, total mercury deposits buried in ice in the Arctic is 15 million gallons. This amount is twice the mercury compounds found in the atmosphere, the oceans, and on land combined.


The thawing permafrost in the Arctic will free up some of the mercury deposits, and microbes might eventually convert naturally-occurring mercury to a more toxic form, methylmercury. Part of these deposits will end up in water, air, and the atmosphere.

Schaefer also revealed their insights and further plans for their study.

“We know permafrost is going to thaw and we know some portion of the mercury will be released. At this point we don’t have specific estimates about how much or when—that’s the next phase of our research.”