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Scary Amounts of Mercury Have Been Found Lurking in The Permafrost

The northern hemisphere’s permafrost regions have been concealing a really unpleasant surprise: mercury. A lot of mercury. Nearly twice as much mercury as the rest of the planet’s natural mercury combined.

Researchers from the US Geological Survey studied core samples from the Alaskan permafrost, and their estimates show 793 million kilograms of mercury have been trapped in the northern hemisphere’s permafrost since the last Ice Age.

This finding has grave implications if the permafrost melts away.

And the melt has already started happening – in the Arctic, melting permafrost has revealed some giant (thankfully dormant) viruses tens of thousands of years old that could awaken and wreak havoc.

Deforestation has caused permafrost melt in Siberia, which in turn caused the ground to collapse into a giant crater; and in other parts of Siberia, permafrost thaw has been linked to the appearance of mysterious sinkholes and craters.

Now there’s also mercury to worry about. If the permafrost continues to melt, it could release a tremendous amount of mercury, and this could, in turn, impact ecosystems all around the world.

“There would be no environmental problem if everything remained frozen, but we know the Earth is getting warmer,” said lead author Paul Schuster, a hydrologist at the US Geological Survey.

“Although measurement of the rate of permafrost thaw was not part of this study, the thawing permafrost provides a potential for mercury to be released – that’s just physics.”


These maps show mercury concentration in micrograms per square metre for four soil depths. (Schuster et al./GRL/AGU)

Natural mercury enters the permafrost from the atmosphere. As part of the mercury cycle, atmospheric mercury vapour binds with organic material in the soil, which is then buried by sediment. Over time, it is frozen into the permafrost.

To gauge the mercury levels in the permafrost, Schuster and his team drilled 13 core samples between 2004 and 2012 from different sites around Alaska, selected for their diverse soil characteristics to represent the entire northern hemisphere.

The measurements taken by the team were consistent with published results for other tundra soils, and with 11,000 measurements taken from 4,926 other non-permafrost sites around the world.

According to the team’s calculations, there are 793 gigagrams (793 million kilograms), or more than 15 million gallons, of mercury frozen in the northern hemisphere’s permafrost. That is, the researchers said, roughly 10 times the amount of all human-caused mercury emissions over the last 30 years.

If we include non-permafrost soils in the permafrost regions, there are 1,656 gigagrams of mercury stowed away down there. This is nearly twice as much as is found in non-permafrost regions, the oceans, and the atmosphere combined.

If it were to leach into the waterways, it could have grave implications. Inorganic mercury can be transformed by microbes into methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin. Cases of methylmercury poisoning have occurred in humans after eating fish from methylmercury-contaminated water, and it can cause central nervous system damage and birth defects.

“There’s a significant social and human health aspect to this study,” said Steve Sebestyen, a research hydrologist at the USDA Forest Service in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Sebestyen was not involved with the study.

“The consequences of this mercury being released into the environment are potentially huge because mercury has health effects on organisms and can travel up the food chain, adversely affecting native and other communities.”

And if the mercury gets into the atmosphere, it could travel around the world.

The next step in Schuster’s research is to model how climate change could cause the permafrost to release mercury, and how it would spread around the world.

“24 percent of all the soil above the equator is permafrost, and it has this huge pool of locked-up mercury,” he said.

“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.”

The research was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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Planet Earth

New unknown viruses have appeared on a Tibet glacier

Unknown viruses from Earth’s ancient past have been found in the Tibetan glacier, which poses a risk if these viruses reach the atmosphere.

As the climate of our planet seems to be getting warmer, melting glaciers can lead to the appearance of previously unknown pathogens.

These agents remain inactive in the ice but do not die, scientists warn.

After examining a couple of ice cores extracted from an ancient glacier located in the Tibetan Plateu, a team of US scientists discovered about 33 viral populations.

And of those 33, 28 of them had never been seen before, according to Live Science.

The researchers warned that as glaciers around the world decrease, this trend could lead to the loss of such “microbial and viral archives” that offer a unique insight into the “climatic regimes” passed from Earth.

“However, in the worst case, this melting of ice could release pathogens into the environment,” they say.

The study of the viruses in question is complicated by the fact that the two ice cores, originally extracted in 1992 and 2015, can easily become contaminated with bacteria.

“This study establishes ultra-clean microbial and viral sampling procedures for glacier ice, which complements the previous decontamination methods on silica and expands, for the first time, clean procedures to viruses,” the scientists wrote.

“The application of these methods to glacier ice confirmed previous common microbiological findings for a new ice core climate record.”

“It provides a first window to viral genomes and their glacial ice ecology across two time horizons, and emphasizes their likely impact on abundant microbial groups.”

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Planet Earth

ESA launches space mission to measure Earth’s climate change

The European Space Agency (ESA) approved a new mission that aims to measure the climate changes that are happening on Earth. Its main objective will be to provide an accurate measure of the light reflected on Earth.

ESA launches space mission to measure Earth's climate change
Art: The TRUTHS satellite will work with other satellites to calibrate and validate observations. UKSA / NPL

Known as Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio-Studies (TRUTHS), the mission was approved by ESA after a meeting with scientists and engineers from its member states.

The scientific aspect of the mission will be addressed by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) of Great Britain, which plans to equip the TRUTHS satellite with an instrument known as a cryogenic radiometer. This device is used to accurately measure the intensity of a light source.

Using this instrument in conjunction with a hyperspectral camera, TRUTHS will measure how much light is being reflected on the Earth’s surface. This includes the planet’s oceans, deserts, snow fields and forests.

As the data that will be collected by TRUTHS will be the first of its kind, it will serve as a standard for Earth’s reflectivity. They can be used and compared with new data that will be collected in future missions 10 to 15 years from now.

According to the scientists, the information that will be collected by the TRUTHS satellite may help policy makers to approve plans and regulations aimed at environmental issues.

By having a clear idea of ​​the amount of light reflected on Earth, scientists will be able to monitor the planet’s climate fingerprint. Specifically, they will be able to measure the heat radiating from the planet. Future missions can use TRUTH data to check changes in Earth’s climate.

Professor Nigel Fox of the NPL said in a statement, according to BBC:

In doing so, we will be able to detect subtle changes much sooner than with our current observation system.

This will allow us to restrict and test climate forecasting models. Therefore, we will know earlier if the predicted temperatures that the models are giving us are consistent or not with the observations.

The TRUTHS mission does not yet have an exact launch date, but officials from ESA member states plan to deploy it sometime in 2026.

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Planet Earth

China has closed 13 cities due to coronavirus, and snakes are called the possible cause of the epidemic

For several days now, the whole world has been closely watching the news about the new coronavirus from China. Just a few days ago, we informed you about the 2019-nCoV outbreak in Wuhan, but things are changing every day. New data on the number of infected not only in China, but also in other countries of the world come almost every hour. The World Health Organization (WHO) held a second emergency meeting during which it was decided not to declare a state of emergency due to an outbreak of coronavirus. Meanwhile, Chinese scientists conducted a study according to which snakes are the source of coronavirus. However, the work raised questions from a large number of scientists.

WHO experts decide not to declare a global emergency

What is happening in China and the world right now?

As he writes in his Twitter  account, WHO Director-General Dr. T. A. Gebreyesus, experts and scientists are serious about what is happening in China. On January 22 and 23, emergency meetings of the WHO took place during which the decision to declare an emergency was not made, since so far little is known about 2019-nCoV. Emergency is observed in China, but now we are not talking about a global threat. Previously, WHO specialists were sent to China to collaborate with Chinese scientists and collect additional information.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government quarantined the city of Wuhan, which is considered the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak. At least 11 million people live in Wuhan, all flights to and from abroad are canceled, residents are forbidden to leave, public transport has stopped and panic has begun in the city, as frightened residents empty store shelves. Already in the evening of January 23, it became known about the second closed city of Huanggang, with a population of 7.5 million people. As Tailymail writes, stations in the third city of Echzhou are closed, and public transport is restricted in Xiantao and Chibi. The Chinese authorities also officially canceled the celebration of the New Year on the lunar calendar. Traditionally, during the New Year holidays, millions of Chinese citizens travel around the country and abroad to meet with relatives.

A traffic police officer measures the temperature of drivers in Wuhan (China)

On the morning of January 24, citing local media, Interfax reported the closure, in addition to Wuhan, of another 12 cities. So far, the exact list has not been disclosed.

Currently, the officially numbers show 25 dead and more than 800 infected. Infections were reported by authorities in Singapore, Japan, Vietnam, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Macau. There are coronavirus suspected patients in some European countries. Professor Neil Ferguson, an expert in mathematical biology at Imperial College in London, told The sun reporters, that the mortality from a new strain of coronavirus is “about the same as during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918,” and the maximum number of infected can reach 10 thousand people.

What exactly is known about the new coronavirus?

Doctors have confirmed that 2019-nCoV is much more contagious than previously thought, and can be transmitted by a third party with a simple cough or sneeze. Third-party transmission of the infection means that the virus has overcome the protective barrier and is no longer transmitted through animals. An airborne type of virus transmission, however, may not be the only one. During the second emergency meeting, WHO experts said that very little is known about the virus at the moment, including with regard to distribution methods. Concerns about the rapid mutation of 2019-nCoV have previously been expressed by Chinese officials, but there is currently no confirmation of this.

Can snakes be a source of coronavirus?

Scientists are trying to identify animals, which probably led to an epidemic. In a controversial study published on the evening of January 22 in a journal Journal of Medical Virology, a team of researchers from China claims that snakes became the cause of the outbreak of coronavirus. Scientists analyzed and compared the genetic sequences of 2019-nCoV and all other known coronaviruses. According to researchers, the accumulation of snakes in one place could be the most likely reservoir of wild animals for the new coronavirus. But many scientists are skeptical of this statement.

Researchers doubt that snakes are the source of coronavirus

As Nature writes, at the moment there is no evidence that such viruses can infect species other than mammals and birds. Science does not know a single case of infection of reptiles and snakes in particular by any subspecies of coronavirus.

What should be done so as not to get sick?

Precautions must be taken if you plan to travel abroad or have recently returned from China. In the official WHO Twitter account there are published cards with recommendations. So, during the flight you should not come into contact with people who have symptoms of acute respiratory viral infections, wash your hands often or use alcohol gel / antiseptic hand wipes, and try not to touch your face with your hands. In case you find yourself having a fever, cough and shortness of breath, experts recommend immediately seeking medical help and tell your doctors about the countries you have visited recently.

Coronavirus treatment

Meanwhile, Chinese doctors managed to develop an effective method of treating pneumonia, the source of which was a new coronavirus. We are talking about extracorporeal oxygenation, in simple words, the saturation of blood with oxygen. The patient was a 53-year-old resident of Hubei Province. On January 1, he felt unwell, turned to the doctors. His body temperature was at the mark of 39 degrees for several days, and conventional therapy did not give positive results. Since his lungs were severely affected by the virus, they were connected to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation apparatus, after which the patient’s well-being improved. If the virus is not detected during repeated tests, the man will be discharged.

Researchers from around the world are closely watching what is happening and trying to learn as much as possible about new coronavirus. The Chinese authorities, in turn, are doing everything necessary to prevent the further spread of 2019-nCoV, so we keep monitoring the situation.

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