Scientists have discovered massive reserves of mercury hidden in permafrost. Permafrost is a thick subsurface layer of soil that remains below freezing point throughout the year, occurring primarily in the polar regions.
The study was published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
Method of Discovery
• Scientists measured mercury concentrations in permafrost cores from Alaska.
• They estimated the amount of mercury that has been trapped in permafrost north of the equator since the last Ice Age.
• Between 2004 and 2012, researchers 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.
• Researchers have discovered permafrost in the northern hemisphere that stores massive amounts of natural mercury.
• The study found approximately 793 gigagrams, or more than 15 million gallons of mercury frozen in northern permafrost soil.
• The study also found that all frozen and unfrozen soil in northern permafrost regions contain a combined 1656 gigagrams of mercury, making it the largest known reservoir of mercury on the planet.
• These northern permafrost soils are the largest reservoir of mercury on the planet, storing nearly twice as much mercury as stored in other soils, the ocean and the atmosphere collectively.
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Implications of the discovery on human health and ecosystems
• This discovery may have significant implications on human health and ecosystems worldwide as exposure to mercury can cause serious health problems.
• As per the scientists, there would be no environmental problem if everything remains frozen, but that is not certain.
• Warmer air temperatures due to climate change could melt much of the existing permafrost layer in the northern hemisphere. This melting permafrost could release a large amount of mercury that could potentially affect ecosystems around the world.
• And if this happens, Mercury has a tendency to get accumulated in aquatic and terrestrial food chains, leading to harmful neurological and reproductive effects on animals.
• Moreover, if the mercury is transported across waterways, it could be taken up by microorganisms and transformed into methylmercury, a form of mercury that is a dangerous toxin that causes neurological effects in animals ranging from motor impairment to birth defects.
• Mercury released into the atmosphere can also travel large distances and could affect communities and ecosystems thousands of miles away from the release site.