Loaded with more mercury than previously thought, permafrost thaw could be a ticking time bomb

Permafrost occurs in about 24 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere land surface surrounding the Arctic Ocean. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Scientists say that frozen ground in the Arctic holds twice as much mercury as the rest of the earth and that the toxic metal is being released as the climate changes.

The findings have “significant implications for human health and ecosystems worldwide,” say researchers with the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC).

Permafrost occurs in about 24 per cent of the land surface surrounding the Arctic Ocean. Previous studies assumed there was little or no mercury in these regions but this study suggests the opposite is true.

Climate models predict a 30 to 90 per cent reduction in permafrost by the year 2100, depending on fossil fuel emissions.

Even small amounts of mercury are dangerous

The World Health Organization (WHO) says exposure to even small amounts of mercury may cause serious health problems and is a threat to the development of children before and after they are born. “Mercury may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes,” states the WHO website. “Mercury is considered by WHO as one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern.”

How much, when & where?

The NSIDC researchers say they’ll release another study modelling the release of mercury from permafrost due to climate change.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Scientists search Arctic waters for microplastics, Radio Canada International

Finland: Dozens of dead moose discovered in Arctic Finland, Yle News

Greenland: Greenland earthquake and tsunami – hazards of melting ice?, blog by Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Norway: Report reveals high levels of microplastics on Norway’s Arctic coast, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia:  Russian General Prosecutor targets polluters in the Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Swedish mining company in court over toxic waste exported to Chile in the 1980s, Radio Sweden

United States: Permafrost thaw prompts emergency orders from Alaska regulators over pipelines concerns, Alaska Dispatch News

Lynn Desjardins, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Lynn has dedicated her working life to journalism. After decades in the field, she still believes journalism to be a pillar of democracy and she remains committed to telling stories she believes are important or interesting. Lynn loves Canada and embraces all seasons: skiing, skating, and sledding in winter, hiking, swimming and playing tennis in summer and running all the time. She is a voracious consumer of Canadian literature, public radio programs and classical music. Family and friends are most important. Good and unusual foods are fun. She travels when possible and enjoys the wilderness.

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