From: Editor, Science Daily
Published February 2, 2011 09:09 AM

Arctic Mercury Mystery: Meterological Conditions in the Spring and Summer to Blame?

The concentration of mercury in humans and animals that live in polar regions is on the increase. Polar bears and humans that eat marine mammals are the most affected. But why is there more mercury in the Arctic than elsewhere?

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Scientists have been puzzling over this question since the beginning of the 1990s. Their first breakthrough came when it was discovered that under certain meteorological conditions, mercury from the air is deposited on the snow and ice in polar areas. The phenomenon occurs when the sun rises over the horizon in the spring, after a long polar night.

Now new research from NTNU PhD candidate Anne Steen Orderdalen and Professor Torunn Berg at the Department of Chemistry and the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) shows that this process also occurs in the summer as well as in the spring. In a series of publications, the researchers have documented the types of mercury found over the Arctic and are tracking its fate and transport. Essentially, far more mercury is deposited in the Arctic than initially thought, which may be due to the extended time period during which it can be transformed and deposited. Scientists still don't know exactly why and how the process occurs. But sunlight appears to be an important factor.

A dangerous transformation

Most of the anthropogenic mercury emissions come from industry. However, natural sources such as erosion and volcanic eruptions also contribute to atmospheric mercury. All the air around us contains gaseous mercury that is not that reactive and thus not harmful, either to animals or to humans, at normal concentrations.

Concentrations worldwide are fairly similar. But it appears that a reaction between sea salt, sunlight and atmospheric mercury transforms the less hazardous gaseous mercury in the air into more reactive mercury. When this more reactive type of mercury is deposited on the ground, it can be converted into toxic methylmercury -- which then can poison the entire food chain.

Article continues: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110201083924.htm

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