The concentration of mercury in the fish in Alaska’s Yukon River may exceed the EPA’s human health criterion by 2050 if greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming are not constrained, according to scientific research funded in part by NASA. This first of its kind research estimates potential releases of mercury from thawing permafrost under high and low carbon emissions scenarios. The researchers predict that by 2200, the mercury emitted into both the atmosphere and water annually by thawing permafrost will compare with current global anthropogenic mercury emissions. That’s because higher carbon emissions lead to faster and more atmosphere and water, where it can accumulate in wildlife like fish. The team’s results were published Sept. 16 in Nature Communications.
“If we can hit the Paris Accord target, we expect minimal impacts to mercury concentrations in fish and water. If we continue with unconstrained greenhouse gas emissions, however, it is likely that we will see large increases in mercury concentrations,” said Kevin Schaefer, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and lead researcher on the project. Mercury emissions of these magnitudes could have a global impact. “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” said Schaefer, “The mercury emissions from thawing permafrost could persist for centuries, impacting the environment both locally and globally.”