Mercury From Industrialized Nations Is Polluting the Arctic—Here’s How It Gets There
By Daniel Obrist
Scientists have long understood that the Arctic is affected by mercury pollution, but know less about how it happens. Remote, cold and seemingly pristine, why is such an idyllic landscape so contaminated with this highly toxic metal?
I recently returned from a two-year research project in Alaska, where I led field research into this issue alongside fellow scientists from the University of Colorado; the University of Nevada's Desert Research Institute; the University of Toulouse and the Sorbonne University in France; and the Gas Technology Institute in Illinois.
Our work was the most comprehensive investigation to date of how mercury is deposited to the Arctic tundra, a vast northern ecosystem surrounding the Arctic Ocean. Our findings show that the gaseous form of mercury—emitted by coal-burning, mining and other industrial processes in the industrialized world—is being lofted into the region from thousands of miles away. In the Arctic, it is deposited onto tundra soils and ultimately runs off into ocean waters, threatening the region's wildlife and people.
Tracing Mercury's Pathways
Industrialized and developing nations emit about 2,000 tons of mercury into the atmosphere every year. Globally, the largest sources include emissions from small-scale and artisanal gold mining and coal-burning power plants.
Mercury emissions from the eight highest emitting industry sectors. Data for 2010 from the 2013 UNEP Global Mercury Assessment. Total estimated global anthropogenic mercury emissions are 1960 metric tons. USEPA
Mercury emissions from human activities take several forms that behave differently in the atmosphere Oxidized mercury, notated as Hg(II), generally settles or is rained out of the atmosphere close to emission sources. In contrast, gaseous elemental mercury or Hg(0), remains in the atmosphere for a long time and can travel around the globe.
In the Arctic, high levels of mercury are found in beluga whales, polar bears, seals, fish, eagles and other birds. This means that humans are also affected, particularly the Inuit, who rely on traditional hunting and fishing for food. Exposure to high levels of mercury over long periods can lead to neurological and cardiovascular problems. Scientists have been working for more than two decades to determine how mercury makes its way from industrialized countries to the Arctic.
From Atmosphere to Plants to Soil
From our observation site north of Alaska's Brooks Range, we determined that gaseous elemental mercury in the atmosphere is the dominant source of Arctic mercury. We calculated that it accounted for 70 percent of the mercury that finds its way into tundra soil. Previous studies focused mainly on deposition of airborne oxidized mercury. However, we estimate that oxidized mercury accounts for less than one-third of mercury deposition, and deposition by rain and snow for only 2 percent.
The next question is how gaseous mercury falls to the ground. We found that plants absorb it from the atmosphere in their leaves, much as they take up carbon dioxide. Then, when the plants shed leaves or die, the mercury they contain is deposited in soil.
This likely explains why runoff from tundra soil to the Arctic Ocean—which other researchers have estimated totals 50 to 85 tons per year—accounts for half to two-thirds of total mercury input into the Arctic Ocean. There, it can be converted to highly toxic organic methylmercury. As larger animals eat smaller animals, it biomagnifies through the aquatic food chain to harmful levels.
It could get worse. Our study did not examine the potential impact of global warming, but if climate change continues unchecked, warmer temperatures could destabilize mercury deposits in permafrost soils and allow even larger amounts to migrate into Arctic waters.
Cumulative atmospheric deposition of major mercury forms in the Arctic tundra. Obrist et al, Nature 547, 201–204 (July 13)
Fingerprinting Mercury Sources
We gathered our Arctic data year-round—a tall order in a place with long, dark winters when temperatures plunge to 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Summers also pose challenges, especially with clouds of mosquitoes.
We used a lab set up on the tundra, which we visited regularly to calibrate and service our instruments and to collaborate with staff from Toolik Field Station, a research station operated by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Our instrumentation included measurements of all major forms of mercury in all environmental compartments, including the atmosphere, snow, rain, plants, lichen, mosses, and tundra soils and permafrost.
Many of our instruments allowed continuous measurements throughout the year via remote control. We needed to measure mercury levels year-round in order to develop annual mercury deposition mass balances—estimates of how much mercury was entering the Arctic from different sources and where it goes. In addition, my collaborators from France performed measurements of stable mercury isotopes—a novel and powerful technique that allowed us to fingerprint various sources of mercury in the environment.
Science to Support Global Action
Our research underscores the importance of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, the first global treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from this element's adverse effects. More than 120 countries, including the United States, have signed the convention, which took effect in August 2017.
The pact requires member nations to phase out or reduce mercury from products such as batteries, certain lightbulbs, cosmetics and pesticides. They also must control mercury air emissions from coal-fired power plants, waste incineration and related industrial processes, and reduce or eliminate mercury use in small-scale gold mining and chemical manufacturing.
Following on this study, I plan to continue investigating whether gaseous mercury is also a dominant source of pollution in other remote lands, and the mechanism of plant mercury uptake, which may be the main pathway for atmospheric mercury deposits to land. Scientists, regulators and policymakers need a better understanding of how the uptake of gaseous mercury in plants and soils is affecting the environment, including the world's forests. With the Minamata Convention as a framework, many nations will need this kind of scientific information to reduce toxic mercury hazards.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Monday that 64 high-income nations have joined an effort to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine fairly, prioritizing the most vulnerable citizens, as Science reported. The program is called the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, or Covax, and it is a joint effort led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- CDC Tells States to Prepare for a Vaccine Before November Election ›
- Fauci Warns Pre-Pandemic Normalcy Not Likely Until Late 2021 ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Gloria Oladipo
In the face of dangerous heat waves this summer, Americans have taken shelter in air conditioned cooling centers. Normally, that would be a wise choice, but during a pandemic, indoor shelters present new risks. The same air conditioning systems that keep us cool recirculate air around us, potentially spreading the coronavirus.
Toxins in water produced by cyanobacteria was likely responsible for more than 300 elephant deaths in Botswana this year, the country's wildlife department announced on Monday.
How Did Cyanobacteria Poison the Elephants?<p>Cyanobacteria are microscopic organisms common in water and sometimes found in soil. Some cyanobacteria produce neurotoxins.</p><p>The cyanobacteria "was growing in pans" or watering holes, the principal veterinary officer of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Mmadi Reuben, told reporters.</p><p>Reuben said the deaths had "stopped towards the end of June 2020, coinciding with the drying of pans."</p><p>"However we have many questions still to be answered such as why the elephants only and why that area only? We have a number of hypotheses we are investigating," added Reuben.</p><p>Similar elephant deaths have also been recorded in neighboring Zimbabwe.</p>
Climate Change to Blame?<p>Not all cyanobacteria are toxic but scientists say varieties dangerous to humans and animals are occurring more frequently as climate change drives up global temperatures.</p><p>Southern Africa's temperatures are rising at twice the global average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p>
Elephant Paradise?<p>Africa's overall elephant population is declining due to poaching. But Botswana, home to almost a third of the continent's elephants, has seen numbers grow to around 130,000.</p><p>Botswana's government said it was continuing studies into the occurrence of the deadly bacteria. In the winter, elephants hydrate themselves mainly by eating roots and bark, especially of the baobab tree.</p>
- Hundreds of Botswana's Elephants Are Dying From Mysterious Cause ›
- How Botswana's Sudden Elephant Deaths Impact the Species ... ›
- In 'Conservation Disaster,' Hundreds of Botswana's Elephants Are ... ›
By Alexandra Villarreal
As West coast wildfires color the skies dystopian red and orange and an aggressive hurricane season batters the U.S. Gulf coast, college students are demanding their schools take bold action to address the climate crisis.
- NYC Public Schools to Excuse Climate Strikers - EcoWatch ›
- Portuguese Youth Activists Sue 33 Countries Over Climate Crisis ... ›
- Students Rally for Fossil Fuel Divestment at Ohio State University ... ›
The National Hurricane Center has run out of names for tropical storms this year and has now moved on to the Greek alphabet during an extremely active hurricane season. Late Monday night, Tropical Storm Beta became the ninth named storm to make landfall. That's the first time so many named storms have made landfall since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was president, according to NBC News.
- Extreme Weather Suggests Future Climate Crisis Is Already Here ... ›
- Atlantic Faces Fifth 'Above-Normal' Hurricane Season in a Row ... ›