Rising Mercury Levels Threaten To Endanger Arctic Species

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STOCKHOLM — Global mercury emissions could grow by 25 percent by 2020 if no action is taken to control them, posing a threat to polar bears, whales and seals and the Arctic communities who hunt those animals for food, an authoritative international study says.

The assessment by a scientific body set up by the eight Arctic rim countries also warns that climate change may worsen the problem, by releasing mercury stored for thousands of years in permafrost or promoting chemical processes that transform the substance into a more toxic form.

“It is of particular concern that mercury levels are continuing to rise in some Arctic species in large areas of the Arctic,” despite emissions reductions in nearby regions like Europe, North America and Russia, said the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, or AMAP.

Emissions have increased in other parts of the world, primarily in China, which is now the world’s No. 1 mercury polluter, accounting for nearly half of total emissions, AMAP said.

Its report, “Arctic Pollution 2011,” was scheduled for release Friday at a scientific conference in Copenhagen, but The Associated Press obtained a copy in advance from researchers involved with the study.

Another report released earlier this week at the meeting of nearly 400 scientists showed melting ice in the Arctic could help raise global sea levels by as much as 5 feet (1.5 meters) this century, much higher than earlier projections.

Both assessments will be handed to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of Russia, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland at an Arctic Council meeting next week.

Polar bears, beluga whales and seals are among the species that have shown heightened levels of mercury in parts of Arctic Canada and Greenland, the pollution report said. Meanwhile, mercury levels have dropped in other animals in the high north of Europe.

The reasons are not fully understood, but theories include that the European animals are closer to regions where mercury emissions are declining.

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