Forest fires could unleash toxic bomb into atmosphere: study

Forest fires could unleash toxic bomb into atmosphere: study

7 September 2006

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Toronto, Ontario, Canada — Longer forest fire seasons will soon cause high levels of mercury to be released into the atmosphere, say the authors of a new study.

As climate change has allowed for hotter and more numerous forest fires over a longer season, northern peat bogs in Western Canada and Alaska have been dried out. The bogs, the researchers say, will soon release centuries’ worth of toxic mercury as they’re set ablaze.

Mercury emissions are 15-times more than previous estimates that do not account for the toxic bog fires, finds the study.

“We’re talking about mercury that has been relatively harmless, trapped in peat for hundreds of years, rapidly being spewed back into the air,” says Merritt Turetsky of Michigan State University, lead author of the study, in a statement. “Our findings show us that climate change is complex.”

The findings are based on research that counted the amount of soil holding mercury and the number of burn areas across Western Canada.

There are currently four forest fires over 100 hectares in size raging in B.C. That includes the 2,350 hectare Tatoosh fire that recently crossed the border from the U.S.

Soil in Canada’s Western wetlands has acted as a mercury sponge for hundreds of years. Normal atmospheric conditions carry mercury into the region, where it settled into the ground.

The released mercury will contaminate food chains as it spreads toxicity into streams and lakes, the researchers say.

The researcher’s work is published August 19 in Geophysical Research Letters.


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