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Earth Science

The Arctic is Full of Toxic Mercury, and Climate Change is Going To Release it (washingtonpost.com) 164

We already knew that thawing Arctic permafrost would release powerful greenhouse gases. On Monday, scientists revealed it could also release massive amounts of mercury -- a potent neurotoxin and serious threat to human health. From a report: Permafrost, the Arctic's frozen soil, acts as a massive ice trap that keeps carbon stuck in the ground and out of the atmosphere -- where, if released as carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas would drive global warming. But as humans warm the climate, they risk thawing that permafrost and releasing that carbon, with microbial organisms becoming more active and breaking down the ancient plant life that had previously been preserved in the frozen earth. That would further worsen global warming, further thawing the Arctic -- and so on. That cycle would be scary enough, but U.S. government scientists on Monday revealed that the permafrost also contains large volumes of mercury, a toxic element humans have already been pumping into the air by burning coal. There are 32 million gallons worth of mercury, or the equivalent of 50 Olympic swimming pools, trapped in the permafrost, the scientists wrote in a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. For context, that's "twice as much mercury as the rest of all soils, the atmosphere, and ocean combined," they wrote.

The Arctic is Full of Toxic Mercury, and Climate Change is Going To Release it

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  • >> There are 32 million gallons worth of mercury, or the equivalent of 50 Olympic swimming pools, trapped

    Wait - how many Library of Congresses does that convert into? Or is there a car analogy you could use?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @10:31AM (#56076669)
      I like thermometers. If you filled 67 billion thermometers with mercury and laid them end to end you would reach the sun.
      • False [imgflip.com].

      • by Anonymous Coward

        I like thermometers. If you filled 67 billion thermometers with mercury and laid them end to end you would reach the sun.

        No they wouldn't, they wouldn't have structural integrity to reach the sun. They would topple over with the slightest of winds. There is no way you would be able to lay thermometers on end to end from here to the sun; although I hear Elon Musk is attempting that next and is raising funds from investors.

    • >> There are 32 million gallons worth of mercury, or the equivalent of 50 Olympic swimming pools, trapped Wait - how many Library of Congresses does that convert into? Or is there a car analogy you could use?

      Car analogy? Since this is evil, I'm assuming we should use Musk-mobiles as the metric. How many seals are beaten to death every time a new Tesla rolls off the line?

  • Another day (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Another msmash abortion of an article about doom and gloom that probably won't happen.

    From the left wing perspective of course.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      My personal favorite on this is the lack of knowledge about mercury in this. They make it sound like the melting of the ice caps will release a torrent of liquid mercury, even though the melting point of it is -38C, a temperature we regularly get above right now in the arctic, and also that mercury is usually caught up in various sulfate forms and is very rarely found in its metallic form in nature and as such doesn't melt until you get it up to several hundred degrees.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        They make it sound like the melting of the ice caps will release a torrent of liquid mercury, even though the melting point of it is -38C, a temperature we regularly get above right now in the arctic,

        Thank you for that factoid. Time to draft another Slashdot narrative.. I mean "news article" that says IT'S EVEN WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT because Global Warming has pushed the arctic above -38C for the FIRST TIME EVER IN RECORDED HISTORY THIS YEAR!

        We'll just ignore the rest of your post about how mercury binds to other compounds. It's not science if it doesn't fit the narrative.

        • That's an awful lot of words for "Whew, finally someone writes something that I understand and supports my preferred narrative!"

      • Re:Another day (Score:5, Informative)

        by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @10:57AM (#56076853) Homepage
        That a popular article doesn't give a perfectly accurate description shouldn't be shocking but if you go to the actual research article http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2017GL075571/full?wol1URL=/doi/10.1002/2017GL075571/full [wiley.com] there concern is pretty clear about airborne and water soluble organic mercury compounds which are far more dangerous than metallic mercury or most inorganic mercury compounds. Metallic mercury and inorganic mercury is pretty safe. You can hold a ball of mercury in your hand without any real consequences. But organic mercury compounds can be much more dangerous. It took just a drop of dimethyl mercury https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimethylmercury [wikipedia.org] on the outside of a glove to kill https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Wetterhahn [wikipedia.org]. Of course, no one is going to directly die from this, but an increase in atmospheric and oceanic mercury levels could have a real negative impact on both the ecosystems and general human health.
        • by dj245 ( 732906 )

          Metallic mercury and inorganic mercury is pretty safe. You can hold a ball of mercury in your hand without any real consequences. But organic mercury compounds can be much more dangerous. It took just a drop of dimethyl mercury https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimethylmercury [wikipedia.org] on the outside of a glove to kill https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Wetterhahn [wikipedia.org]. Of course, no one is going to directly die from this, but an increase in atmospheric and oceanic mercury levels could have a real negative impact on both the ecosystems and general human health.

          Wikipedia dry humor

          Karen Wetterhahn
          Known for Work on toxic metal exposure, dying of toxic metal exposure

      • Re:Another day (Score:5, Insightful)

        by retchdog ( 1319261 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @11:02AM (#56076895) Journal

        you should look up what "permafrost" means. also, mercury sulfates have non-zero bio-availability.

        i guess they didn't cover these in young earth geology.

        • you should look up what "permafrost" means.

          The name is a lie; There are bones under the ice from time before frost. My home town used to be under kilometers of ice just ten thousand years ago.

      • Re:Another day (Score:4, Informative)

        by nomadic ( 141991 ) <nomadicworld@noSpAM.gmail.com> on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @11:31AM (#56077099) Homepage

        That absolutely wrong. Mercury, like just about all liquids, evaporates at room temperature. I mean, you don't need to know much about science to notice that if you leave a puddle of water on your kitchen floor alone it will eventually evaporate. Most of the mercury in the atmosphere is in its "metallic" or elemental form because mercury compounds are frequently reduced in nature.

      • Re:Another day (Score:5, Informative)

        by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @11:58AM (#56077267)

        We aren't talking about a river of silvery mercury running down the Hudson. What we're dealing with here, and what you'd know if you actually bothered to read the article, is mercury trapped in plants that cannot decay due to temperatures too low for natural decay to occur. Mercury, and that's what makes it such a dangerous stuff, binds readily to organic material. Any mercury that does exist gets sequestered in the plants that can actually live in such an environment, many of which never decay properly to release that mercury back into the environment.

        Thaw them and they will.

    • Re:Another day (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bazorg ( 911295 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @10:45AM (#56076761) Homepage

      Not at all.

      The conclusions from the study include the following:

      This makes the reservoir of Hg in permafrost soils vulnerable to release over the next century, with unknown consequences to the environment.

      and


      Northern Hemisphere permafrost soils contain nearly twice as much Hg as all other soils, the ocean, and the atmosphere combined, indicating a need to reevaluate the role of the Arctic regions in the global Hg cycle. This Hg is vulnerable to release as permafrost thaws over the next century.

      I think they did a good job pre-empting Joe Sixpack telling scientists to stay out of politics. Anonymous Coward seeing left wing bias in the news is a another story.

    • Re:Another day (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Layzej ( 1976930 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @11:21AM (#56077031)

      Another msmash abortion of an article about doom and gloom that probably won't happen.

      And yet it melts... [metoffice.gov.uk]

  • For context, that's "twice as much mercury as the rest of all soils, the atmosphere, and ocean combined,"

    Why is there twice the mercury in the arctic? Or, should I just RTFA?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I am a bit disappointed in this one, msmash.

    I mean, you knocked it out of the park with the AGW fear mongering, but it lacks pretty much completely in all other SJW categories. You could at least have found a link that blamed the patriarchy for all this.

    It's like you just aren't trying anymore.

  • Good news. (Score:4, Funny)

    by GameboyRMH ( 1153867 ) <gameboyrmh@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @10:44AM (#56076757) Journal

    I found out what that thing you just incinerated did. It was a glacier they installed after I flooded the earth with a deadly neurotoxin to make me stop flooding the earth with a deadly neurotoxin, so get comfortable while I warm up the neurotoxin emitters.

    Ah, that glacier may have had some ancillary responsibilities. I can't shut off the flooding defenses. Oh well.

  • This just in: Trump pledges $1B to innovative Clean Mercury plants

  • sniff test (Score:1, Insightful)

    by pz ( 113803 )

    For context, that's "twice as much mercury as the rest of all soils, the atmosphere, and ocean combined," they wrote.

    This assertion does not pass the sniff test without a proposed mechanism to drive mercury concentration so unilaterally to one part of the globe, and away from the vastly larger (in both area and volume) remainder. It might be true (maybe ... ), but it does have the ring of fear mongering.
     

    • by nomadic ( 141991 )

      Mercury distribution is driven by air mass movements, precipitiation patterns and the availability of oxidizing agents, most likely halogens, that are frequently found in higher amounts in the north polar region.

    • Re:sniff test (Score:5, Informative)

      by cmseagle ( 1195671 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @11:40AM (#56077149)
      Since when does the "sniff test" trump a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, written by scientists from the US Geological Survey? The introduction to the paper [wiley.com] suggests a mechanism (with citations) by which mercury is concentrated in the permafrost.
      • Re:sniff test (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @12:03PM (#56077301)

        Didn't get the memo? "Common sense" and "I feel it's that way" is the new gold standard for truth. Welcome to the post-factual times.

        • It's called truthiness, and it isn't really all that new anymore.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      From TFA: "...the Arctic is special. Normally, as plants die and decay, they decompose and mercury is released back to the atmosphere. But in the Arctic, plants often do not fully decompose. Instead, their roots are frozen and then become buried by layers of soil. This suspends mercury within the plants, where it can be remobilized again if permafrost thaws."
    • Re:sniff test (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jaime2 ( 824950 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @12:11PM (#56077355)
      The same way that big fish have a higher mercury content than little fish. If an organism consumes mercury laden air/water, it collects in their bodies. With fish, that collection time is their lifespan. With the arctic, it remains trapped even after the organism dies due to the preservative effect of the cold.
    • The article describes 32 Million gallons of mercury being released, 3.2E7 gallons

      The US federal drinking water standard is 2 parts per billion or 1 part in 500 million, 1:5E8 gallons

      Multiplying, that means this is safe if it is diluted in 1.6E16 Gallons of water.

      The volume of the ocean is 3.52E20 gallons.

      Is there a proposed mechanism that could cause the mercury to be concentrated in a specific region?

    • by epine ( 68316 )

      This assertion does not pass the sniff test without a proposed mechanism to drive mercury concentration so unilaterally to one part of the globe

      There's this activity that humans engage in called "mining" in which giant kidneys are constructed to separate various useful elements from the entropic ooze.

      No, wait, I was reading from the "40 billion years old" column.

      Under the four billion column, everything we mine is found in deposits or clusters of high concentration, many of which were discovered long before

  • OK, 50 olympic pools of mercury sounds pretty dangerous. If someone dropped 50 pools of mercury somewhere, this definitly would be dangerous. But then again: How did it get there? Why concentrated in the arctic? I'm pretty sure no one disposed the worlds obsolete mercury thermometers there, so... coal burning? How many coal was burned in the arctic? Probably not much compared to past and modern industrial centers.

    So I'm setting up this hypothesis: If coal burning is the main source of mercury, the arctic re

    • by nomadic ( 141991 )

      The mercury in permafrost largely predates modern coal burning. It tends to concentrate in the arctic due to atmospheric characteristics.

    • OK, 50 olympic pools of mercury sounds pretty dangerous. If someone dropped 50 pools of mercury somewhere, this definitly would be dangerous. But then again: How did it get there? Why concentrated in the arctic? I'm pretty sure no one disposed the worlds obsolete mercury thermometers there, so... coal burning? How many coal was burned in the arctic? Probably not much compared to past and modern industrial centers.

      So I'm setting up this hypothesis: If coal burning is the main source of mercury, the arctic received much less of mercury than any other part of the world. Only due to the climatic situation there, it was trapped in the ice. But then, even tose 50 pools can only be a fraction of mercury pollution compared to the rest of the world.

      If wood floats, witches float, ice floats, and witches are made out of wood, clearly witches put mercury in the arctic. Why are you blaming this all on thermometers and coal when witches are out terrorizing the world?

      Why does everyone need to have their own "theory" for how these sorts of systems work? If you care enough to post a theory, why not read the actual paper?

  • It's probably wise to start preparing for the changes that are coming. We're inherently lazy. It doesn't take a genius to notice that when it comes to protecting the environment or heath a lot of folks wait until it's almost too late before doing anything. It's one of the reasons why I find people who deny climate change for the most part disappointing. Most are playing the let's ignore it until it becomes a serious issue at which point it's either harder to fix or fatal. And in many ways it's already

    • Way ahead of you. I live on an elevated position. I have a gun. Anyone trying to escape the rising sea levels gets shot.

  • From the study : "The turnover time associated with the microbial decay of frozen organic matter is ~14,000 years (Figure S28), making the Hg locked in permafrost effectively stable on human time scales. However, projections indicate a 30–99% reduction in near surface permafrost by 2100, and, once thawed, the turnover time for microbial decay drops to ~70 years (Koven et al., 2013; Schaefer et al., 2011). This makes the reservoir of Hg in permafrost soils vulnerable to release over the next century, w

  • Clean coal

    That's the ticket to solving this whole greenhouse, global warming thingy. We need to make coal great again.

  • by cyber-vandal ( 148830 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @11:41AM (#56077161) Homepage

    Does it...

    Want to Break Free?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Is this before or after the projected 10-year pause in global warming [wattsupwiththat.com] due to decreased solar activity? Google search is pulling back articles from 2012 to say global warming wasn't linked to solar activity, except that it has for the last 5 years, and could happen again for at least another decade or more.

  • Its safer on mars... soon to be more hospitable to life than earth.
  • So wait - they are SOOO concerned about mercury in the artic being "released" but not concerned about the mercury in vaccines (or should I call an "adjuvent"). They tells us mercury is good for you that's why it's in the vaccines. So why should we give a raging rats ASS about mercury being released from the artic.... Make up your minds you stupid global warming conspiracy theorists.

  • Holy shit the Talos Principle is real! We have to get to work creating AIs that are humanlike to take over when we all die!

Any sufficiently advanced bug is indistinguishable from a feature. -- Rich Kulawiec

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