Mercury released by permafrost thaw puts Yukon River fish at risk: Study

Mercury released by permafrost thaw puts Yukon River fish at risk: Study

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handout shows the Yukon River in Alaska
The Yukon River is seen in Alaska in this undated handout photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. (Photo: REUTERS/US Fish and Wildlife Service/Handout via Reuters)

ANCHORAGE: If carbon emissions continue at current rates, so much mercury will leach from thawing permafrost that fish in the Yukon River could become dangerous to eat within a few decades, according to a study published on Wednesday (Sep 16) in the journal Nature Communications.

Current emissions rates threaten to trigger enough thaw release to drive mercury levels in Yukon River fish above federal safety guidelines by 2050, according to the study.

Mercury concentration in the Yukon is expected to double by the end of the century if carbon emissions continue at present rates, according to the study.

But if emissions are reduced in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, mercury concentrations will increase by only 14 per cent by the end of the century, keeping levels in fish at or below safety guidelines, according to the study.

“A lot will depend on what we do in terms of response to climate change,” said Kevin Schaefer of the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center, the study’s lead author.

The study has implications beyond the indigenous communities in Alaska and Canada that depend on Yukon River fish for their income, diets and culture, Schaefer said.

The 3,200km river is “a bellwether or a canary-in-the-coal mine kind of thing, an indicator of what might happen over the whole Arctic", he said. Thaw-released mercury will work its way from the land to the river and ultimately, into the oceans, and thaw-released mercury in gaseous form will encircle the world, he said.

“What happens in the Yukon is going to affect the entire globe, not just the people who live on or around the Yukon River,” he said.

A 2018 study co-authored by Schaefer, in collaboration with partners from the US Geological Survey and other institutions, estimated that the northern hemisphere’s permafrost soils hold nearly twice as much stored mercury as is in all the rest of the world’s soils, the oceans and the atmosphere combined.

Source: Reuters/dv

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