US Geological Survey (USGS) scientists have determined that northern hemisphere’s permafrost (frozen soil) conceals an extremely unpleasant surprise – huge amounts of mercury. The mercury in permafrost is two times more than the rest of natural mercury on the planet.
How does the mercury reach into the permafrost?
Natural mercury enters the permafrost from the atmosphere.
As part of the mercury cycle, its vapor binds to the organic material in the soil, which is then buried in the sediment. Over time, the soil freezes and becomes permafrost.
The discovery in numbers
The mercury level was measured by analyzing 13 samples from different regions of Alaska and the results were comparable with other similar studies.
The calculations revealed that there are 793 million kilograms of frozen mercury northern hemisphere permafrost, which means about 10 times more than human-produced mercury emissions over the past 30 years.
If we include the non-frozen soils in the northern regions there are 1.65 billion kilograms of mercury into the soil, meaning twice as much as all the mercury found in the rest of the planet, in the ocean and in the atmosphere.
Mercury in permafrost can have catastrophic implications
More serious is that permafrost has started to thaw, as was particularly noted in Siberia.
Moreover, permafrost can be considered a Pandora’s box, containing dangerous compounds such as carbon dioxide, viruses of tens of thousands of years old, and mercury.
“There would be no environmental problem if everything remained frozen, but we know the Earth is getting warmer. Although the measurements on the thawing rate of permafrost were not part of the study, a thawing permafrost can lead to the release of mercury – it is simple physics,” said Paul Schuster, lead author of the study and hydrologist at USGS.
The mercury in permafrost can get into groundwater, and from there, the implications can be catastrophic. Inorganic mercury can be converted to methylmercury, a very powerful toxin that affects the nervous system. If he gets into the atmosphere, he can travel through the whole world.