In Brief
We know climate change melts permafrost and releases gases, but a new study reveals Alaskan permafrost also contains toxic mercury that will one day escape.

Climate change is responsible for altering sea turtles’ genders, acidifying our lakes, and pushing clouds away from tropical forests. In the future we’ll also have to deal with rising temperatures, extreme weather, and massive flooding.

Climate change is also responsible for melting permafrost, the frozen soil found in colder regions around the globe. When that frozen soil thaws, it releases all sorts of hidden nastiness — everything from ancient infections to trapped greenhouse gases that make their way into the atmosphere.

If you’re already sick of hearing about climate change impacts, or perhaps think it couldn’t get any worse, brace yourself. New research published in Geophysical Research Letters suggests that the permafrost in Alaska conceals more than 15 million gallons of natural mercury. That’s nearly twice the amount of mercury stored in other soils, oceans, and the atmosphere put together.

Yikes. So what happens when the Alaskan permafrost thaws and all that mercury escapes?

Mercury Madness

When the permafrost’s mercury is released, it could dissolve into freshwater or saltwater and be ingested by fish and other animals. That mercury is so poisonous that it can cause birth defects and motor impairment in nearby wildlife.

Nearby human populations that rely on that wildlife for food would be affected too. But don’t think you’re safer if you don’t live in the Northern Hemisphere. The team that conducted the study suggests that mercury could be released into the atmosphere and carried thousands of miles away, to other communities and ecosystems.

Nice to know that we can add mercury poisoning to the list of things to worry about the next time scientists note an uptick in Arctic temperatures.

At this point, think of climate change as being really dedicated to its job: To radically impact our lives for the worse, whether we want it to or not. It’s also really good at constantly reminding us of the cost of our prior reliance on fossil fuels. The shift to clean energy can’t happen soon enough.

As such, we have to be aware of the consequences of making our planet any hotter — like the potential for 15 million gallons of mercury to hit the atmosphere.

“Twenty-four percent of all the soil above the equator is permafrost, and it has this huge pool of locked-up mercury,” said Paul Schuster, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado and lead author of the study, in a press release. “What happens if the permafrost thaws? How far will the mercury travel up the food chain? These are big-picture questions that we need to answer.”

Hopefully the answers to Schuster’s questions will be discovered before climate change can do anymore damage. What we need now, though, is an effective plan to offset climate change impacts, not more evidence of how life-threatening it can be — we’ve got a pretty clear picture of that already.