September 8, 2015

Poison in Arctic and human cost of ‘clean’ energy

Photo by Prentiss H. Balcom
Postdoctoral fellow Amina Schartup, the paper’s first author, aboard the “What’s Happening” on Lake
Melville. In 2017, a dam will flood a large region upstream from an estuarine fjord called Lake Melville.

Hydroelectric energy may be more damaging to northern ecosystems than climate change

(September 8, 2015)  Colonial New Delhi had a cobra infestation. To get rid of it, the government offered bounties for dead cobras, inadvertently turning cobra breeding into a thriving business. When the government got wise and canceled the program, thousands of then worthless cobras were released into the city streets.

Today, the cobra effect means making a problem worse by attempting to solve it.

Arctic regions don’t have a poisonous snake problem; they have a poison problem.

The amount of methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin, is especially high in Arctic marine life but until recently, scientists haven’t been able to explain why. Now, research from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests that high levels of methylmercury in Arctic life are a byproduct of global warming and the melting of sea-ice in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.

View of Lake Melville from Rigolet, a Nunatsiavut community on the far eastern edge
of the lake. Photo by Prentiss H. Balcom

To mitigate global warming, many governments are turning to hydroelectric power. But, the research also suggests that methylmercury concentrations from flooding for hydroelectric development will be far greater than those expected from climate change.

The research, published in PNAS, began as a review of the environmental impact assessment for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam in Labrador, Canada. In 2017, the dam will flood a large region upstream from an estuarine fjord called Lake Melville.

The communities along the shores of Lake Melville are predominantly Indigenous and rely on the lake as a primary source of food. One of these communities — and two-thirds of Lake Melville — is part of Nunatsiavut, the first autonomous region in Canada governed by Inuit. When the impact report predicted no adverse downstream effects on Lake Melville, the Nunatsiavut Government reached out to Elsie Sunderland, associate professor of environmental engineering and environmental health, for help.

“All of the methylmercury from the rivers feeding into Lake Melville (pictured) and from the
sediment at the bottom of the lake couldn’t account for the levels in the water,” said postdoctoral
fellow Amina Schartup. “There was something else going on here.” Photo by Prentiss H. Balcom

Four years later, that initial review has morphed into a multi-pronged investigation that has led to important scientific discoveries about how methylmercury accumulates in the ecosystem and how it will impact communities who rely on the ecosystem for food and resources.

What’s happening

Sunderland and her team — including lab manager Prentiss H. Balcom and postdoctoral fellow Amina Schartup, the paper’s first author — made their first trip to Happy Valley Goose Bay, along the western shores of Lake Melville, in 2012. There, they took a 10-day journey across the lake on a fishing boat to measure baseline methylmercury levels.

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