Climate change appears to be contributing to the waking of a dangerous sleeping giant in the most northern wetlands of North America mercury.
Released into the atmosphere most prodigiously with the launching of the industrial age, the toxic element falls back onto Earth, and accumulates particularly in North American wetlands. A Michigan State
University researcher working closely with the U.S. Geological Survey finds wildfires, growing more frequent and intense, are unleashing this sequestered mercury at levels up to 15 times greater than originally calculated.
The report, "Wildfires threaten mercury stocks in northern soils," appears this week in the online edition of Geophysical Research Letters.
"This study makes the point that while peat lands are typically viewed as very wet and stagnant places, they do burn in continental regions, especially late in the season when water tables are depressed," said Merritt Turetsky, assistant professor of plant biology and fisheries and wildlife at MSU. "When peat lands burn, they can release a huge amount of mercury that overwhelms regional atmospheric emissions. Our study is new in that it looks to the soil record to tell us what happens when peat soil burns, soil that has been like a sponge for mercury for a long time."
Normal atmospheric conditions naturally carry the mercury emitted from burning fossil fuel and other industry northward, where it eventually settles on land or water surfaces. The cold, wet soils of the boreal forest region in Alaska and northern Canada have been efficient resting places for mercury.
"When we walk across the surface of a peat land, we are standing on many thousands of years of peat accumulation," Turetsky said. "This type of wetland is actually doing us a service. Peat lands have been storing mercury from the atmosphere since well before and during the Industrial Revolution, locking it in peat where it's not caus
Contact: Merritt Turetsky
Michigan State University