Global warming could release more toxic mercury into our oceans

A new study published in Nature Geoscience shows higher concentrations of toxic mercury in the rivers and Fjords connected to the Greenland ice sheet.

Greenland is one of the major exporters of cold-water shrimp, cod, and halibut. Glacial meltwater with higher mercury concentrations in the Southwest region could impact the fishing industry, as the mercury can find its way into the aquatic food web.

The study is a collaborative effort by Jon Hawkings, a postdoctoral researcher at Florida State University and the German Research Centre for Geosciences, and Jemma Wadham, a glaciologist and professor from the Cabot Institute for the Environment at the University of Bristol. The researchers analyzed water samples from three different rivers and two fjords next to the ice sheet to understand better the meltwater quality and the impact of dissolved nutrients on the coastal ecosystem.

The concentrations of mercury baffled the researchers. The levels were comparable to the concentrations found in the rivers in industrial China. Typical mercury concentrations of rivers are about 1-10 ng L-1 or the equivalent of a grain of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The concentrations measured in the glacial meltwater were over 150 ng L-1 and over 2000 ng L-1 of particulate mercury concentration in the glacial sediment or glacial flour.

The findings raise more questions on the origin of this toxic element and its impact on the aquatic food web, where it can concentrate further. According to Hawkings, the source is more likely the Earth itself than coming from fossil fuel combustion or industrial pollution.

Global warming has resulted in the widespread melting of glaciers impacting ocean currents and increases the risk of coastal flooding due to the rise in sea level. This finding adds a new dimension as the melting glacier affects Earth’s geothermal and biological processes, which could be more difficult to contain.

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