A recent article in the Washington Post (“Democracy Dies in Darkness!”) cites a study purporting to show that thawing Arctic permafrost will release “massive” amounts of mercury into the atmosphere, in addition to “powerful” greenhouse gases. Scientists have said for years that permafrost, the Arctic’s frozen soil, acts as a massive ice trap that keeps carbon stuck in the ground and out of the atmosphere, preventing further warming of our dainty, clueless planet. Now they’ve discovered that the permafrost also contains large volumes of mercury, a potent neurotoxin dangerous to humans.
The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (don’t miss the crossword puzzles on the back page!) claims there are 32 million gallons of mercury currently encased in the permafrost, amounting to “twice as much mercury as the rest of all soils, the atmosphere, and ocean combined.” How do we know this? Frankly, it sounds a bit “shot-in-the-dark-ish” to my ears. And if this were true…why?
Kevin Schaefer, a scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, and a co-author of the study, said: “As permafrost thaws in the future, some portion of this mercury will get released into the environment, with unknown impact to people and our food supplies.” The scientists are especially concerned because “humans have already been pumping” mercury “into the air by burning coal,” according to the article. I conducted my own study to see why this is the case. Turns out, in large part it’s because we are trying to warm ourselves when it’s so bleeping cold outside. Maybe the NSIDC should factor that into their equations. If the planet were to warm a bit, perhaps we’d use less energy in our attempts to avoid freezing to death.
The study’s author’s claims carry with them the implicit suggestion that the planet would be better off if it were entirely entombed in ice. No worries about greenhouse gases or mercury frolicking about in the atmosphere! Of course, there wouldn’t be any humans frolicking, either. Maybe that’s the point.
By-the-way, how did the mercury get into the soil in the first place? It must have been a lot warmer then. Schaefer again: “We figure that this represents the buildup of mercury during and since the last ice age.” Hmm. That about covers it.
The article ends thusly: “How much would be released depends on how much the permafrost thaws—which in turn depends on the warming of the planet. But permafrost thaw has begun in some places and scientists project that it will continue over the course of the century. The study says that with current emissions levels through 2100, permafrost could shrink by between 30 and 99 percent.”
It could shrink by between 30% and entirely gone.
Just as it’s done in the past, sans humans, due to natural cycles that we don’t fully understand and will never be able to master. That is a scientific fact.