Melting Arctic Ice Could Unleash 300 Years of Industrial Pollution, Flood of Plastics and Disease

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Much of the concern associated with climate change, at least in southern New England, is centered around rising seas. Often overlooked in the numerous public discussions is what all that extra water holds.

And what it holds is some really nasty stuff, such as toxic heavy metals and now-banned chemicals, according to Geoffrey Scott, chairman of the University of South Carolina’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Scott recently spoke at the Metcalf Institute’s Annual Public Lecture Series, held the second week of June at the University of Rhode Island. His lecture was titled “Climate Change, Coastal Urbanization and Water: A Recipe for Disaster,” and during it he noted that since 1970 the Arctic has witnessed a 3.5-degree warming. Polar ice is melting.

“What’s in that ice is emissions from the Industrial Revolution,” Scott said. “We’re releasing 300 years of pollution.”

Trapped in that melting, or in-jeopardy-of-melting, ice and permafrost, Scott said, is lead; mercury; endosulfan, a DDT-era insecticide that persists in the environment; atrazine, a pesticide since banned in the European Union considered harmful to wildlife and potentially to humans; and chlorpyrifos, an organophosphorus pesticide known for its damaging effects on the human nervous system.

Scott noted that endosulfan has been linked to numerous fish kills, and has been found in polar bears. He also said loss of Arctic sea ice has put 279 species at risk.

A 2014 study found plastic debris trapped in Arctic sea ice and noted that, as this ice melts, it could release a flood of floating plastic. During the past few years, scientists have documented “unprecedented” plumes of methane — a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide — bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean.

In fact, scientists say tons of carbon and methane lie under the Arctic tundra, trapped in ice. This frozen ground, called permafrost, covers nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere. They say global warming is thawing patches of this frozen ground and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Besides unleashing climate-changing gases and toxins long trapped in ice, the warming of the planet is negatively impacting ocean salinity, changing plant hardiness zones, and creating incubators for pests and pathogens, according to Scott.

The disease part has Scott particularly concerned, especially when it comes to vibrios, a warm-water and often-deadly bacteria that can be transmitted by eating undercooked or raw shellfish. Vibrios also can be contracted by wading in bacteria-infected water with an open wound.

‘It’s going to become more difficult to treat infections,” Scott said. “It’s a terrible disease and with increasing temperatures it will occur more frequently.”

He said illnesses caused by vibrios already cost the U.S. health-care system some $30 million annually.

The state of Florida recently issued a warning about vibrio vulnificus. So far this year, eight people have been infected by the bacteria there, and two have died.

The warming planet also is helping to spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Scott said MRSA causes more deaths in the United States every year than AIDS, and is causing growing problems when it comes to such medical procedures as transplants and caesarean sections.

Harmful algal blooms — called cyanobacteria and commonly known as blue-green algae — also are increasing nationwide, according to Scott, thanks to rising global temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. Warmer temperatures favor surface bloom-forming cyanobacteria because their growth rates occur at relatively high temperatures, often in excess of 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

These blooms, being aided by a changing climate, are of special concern because of their potential impacts on drinking water and recreational waters. They also can close shellfish beds for days or weeks.