08/07/2014 10:34 EDT

Mercury Content In Oceans Has Tripled Since The Industrial Revolution: Study

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Humans have been busy since the Industrial Revolution.

Hailed as 'the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants,' the 'revolution' is shaping up to be downright murder on those aforementioned plants and animals.

And, in the long term, maybe even us.

According to new research published in the science journal Nature, we've tripled the amount of mercury in the shallow parts of the ocean — a potentially dire threat to the health of the world's population.

The study, led by the U.S.-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), is the first to tally the amount of mercury in the world's oceans borne of pollution.

"It would seem that, if we want to regulate the mercury emissions into the environment and in the food we eat, then we should first know how much is there and how much human activity is adding every year," explained Carl Lamborg, a marine chemist at WHOI, in a press release.

The key, researchers found, was tracking levels of phosphate — a well-studied chemical that behaves much like mercury. As a nutrient molecule, phosphate also swims seamlessly through the food chain, making it a rather sturdy control chemical for the study.

“Nobody's attempted to do a more comprehensive overview of all the oceans and get an estimate of total mercury in the surface and some deeper waters before,” David Streets, a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, told Scientific American.


A grim indictment of our industrial zeal.

Researchers noted the ocean bears some 60,000 to 80,000 tonnes of mercury from pollution — the vast majority of it in shallow waters. In water less than a thousand metres deep, mercury levels have surged by 1.5 times since the pre-industrial era. In particularly shallow waters — less than 100 metres deep — those levels have tripled.

All that mercury in shallow waters, Lamborg suggests, could pile up in fish. And, by extension, eaters of fish.

“You're starting to overwhelm the ability of deep water formation to hide some of that mercury from us, with the net result that more and more of our emissions will be found in progressively shallower water,” Lamborg told Nature. "That increases the odds that mercury levels in key food species will rise, increasing humans' exposure."

Congratulations humans. We're all doomed.

Well, not quite.

If, as these findings suggest, we can change the complexion of the oceans so radically in such a short time for the worst, why not for the better?

“The new data suggest that the problem is actually a bit more tractable,” Lamborg explains. “It's a cause for optimism and should make us excited to do something about it because we may actually have an impact.”

After all, it's not like we'll be able to hit rewind on the Industrial Revolution.

ocean plastic

This undated photo provided by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program shows debris collected inside the cod end of the manta net after a tow. The sample was dominated by very small plastic particles. (AP Photo/NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

Churning up in 18th Century Britain, the Revolution spread throughout much of the globe over the next hundreds years or so. Factories and mechanization paved the way for mass production, which would, in turn, lead to bustling cities, global economies and pretty much guarantee you get a decent price on a flat-screen TV at Walmart.

As water played a crucial role in firing up and maintaining factories, so too, did those diverted rivers, canals and reservoirs bear humanity's industrial taint.

Namely, mercury.

"Mercury is a priority environmental poison detectable wherever we look for it, including the global ocean abyss," says Don Rice, director of the National Science Foundation's Chemical Oceanography Program, which funded the research. "These scientists have reminded us that the problem is far from abatement, especially in regions of the world ocean where the human fingerprint is most distinct."

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