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Sea ice cracks

Sea ice cracks cause mercury to accumulate in Arctic environment

Friday, January 31, 2014 by: Ethan A. Huff, staff writer
Tags: sea ice cracks, mercury, Arctic

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(NaturalNews) An investigation into Arctic sea ice and how it reacts with the sun to draw in mercury and other toxins from the atmosphere has uncovered some alarming truths about the true accumulation of heavy metals at the earth's poles. Recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, the new research reveals that far more mercury than previously thought is being pulled out of the sky and deposited into Arctic sea water and ice, which of course means more pollution for humans.

According to Weather Underground (WU), the process is completely normal -- as Arctic ice begins to crack open in the early spring, the relatively warm waters underneath the ice mix with frigid Arctic air to produce tiny tempests, similar to those observed over a pot of boiling water. These tempests, it turns out, react with sunlight to pull down toxic mercury and ozone from the atmosphere, effectively depositing it into the sea.

Scientists have known about the process for some 20 years, and they have long believed that they have a general understanding of the levels of mercury being pulled and deposited every year. That is until now. According to the new study, congruent with these tempests above the ice cracks are roiling air currents that apparently pull even more mercury out of the skies than previously believed. After the first round of mercury is pulled, this resultant process restarts and begins to pull even more mercury, up to a quarter-mile above the cracks.

"When Arctic sea ice cracks apart, relatively warm ocean water meets frigid polar air, causing atmospheric turbulence," writes Becky Oskin for WU about the process. "This mixes up the layered Arctic atmosphere, which would otherwise prevent the sunlight-triggered chemistry from reaching mercury higher in the sky."

Hundreds of tons of mercury being pulled from atmosphere, deposited into Arctic seas

When all is said and done, vast amounts of mercury captured from the residues of coal-fired power plants, gold mining and the like end up being deposited directly into Arctic sea water. According to Daniel Obrist, an atmospheric scientist at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Nevada, this amount can range in the hundreds of tons, which helps put the severity of the situation into perspective.

"When the leads open, we see a very quick increase in mercury concentrations," added Chris Moore, one of the co-authors of the study, also from DRI. "They jump from essentially zero to global background levels within a couple of hours."

Global background levels of mercury, explains Becky Oskin for WU, are said to range between 1.3 to 1.5 nanograms per cubic meter of air in the Arctic. But they tend to fluctuate, which makes the situation a little bit more difficult to fully ascertain. And with alleged climate change also mixing things up, some experts are wondering how this process and the way it affects humans will change in the coming years.

"This transition to an Arctic that has more seasonal sea ice means there is potential for this mechanism to happen over a larger and larger area," emphasized Moore to reporters. "We really need to understand how these environmental processes may change in the future."

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