Study: Mercury contained in fish from Alaska’s Yukon River could exceed EPA human health standard by 2050

The amount of mercury contained in fish from Alaska’s Yukon River could exceed the standards for human health set by the Environmental Protection Agency by 2050 if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed, according to new research financed in part by NASA.

Under a high emissions scenario, the mercury content in the Yukon River could double by 2100.

The results, published earlier this month in Nature Communications, found that mercury emitted into the environment from thawing permafrost, which is exacerbated by carbon emissions, would compare to the earth’s current anthropogenic mercury emissions by 2200 if greenhouse gas emissions are not altered. Permafrost contains almost twice as much mercury as other soils, the ocean, and the atmosphere all put together.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Artic,” Kevin Schaefer, a lead researcher on the project and a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said. “The mercury emissions from thawing permafrost could persist for centuries, impacting the environment both locally and globally.”  

“If we can hit the Paris Accord target, we expect minimal impacts to mercury concentrations in fish and water. If we continue with unrestrained greenhouse gas emissions; however, it is likely that we will see large increases in mercury concentrations,” he added.

The study looked at both high- medium-, and low-carbon emissions scenarios and found that if the low-carbon emissions scenario plays out, mercury concentrations in the river would increase by only 14 percent, and wouldn’t exceed the levels set out by the Environmental Protection Agency by 2300.

“We need to comply with the Paris Accord target of 2 degrees Celsius. Otherwise, under a high emission scenario, a significant portion of mercury will be released to the environment, and it will continue for hundreds of years,” Yasin Elshorbany, co-author of the study, said.

Photo courtesy of FOTOADICTA/Shutterstock


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