The ivory gull is a beautiful bird that is known for its striking pure white adult plumage. The species breeds high in the Arctic Circle and lives in the northern climes of Canada, Russia, and Greenland. It occasionally wanders down to the northeastern coast of the U.S. and over to the British Isles, but when it comes to laying eggs and raising hatchlings, it stays in the Arctic.
The trouble is, the Arctic is becoming increasingly polluted by mercury, so much so that it may be affecting the future of the ivory gull. Loss of Arctic sea ice could also be threatening the animal’s survival. The bird’s population has dropped 80% since the 1980s and it’s classified as endangered in Canada and listed as near-threatened elsewhere, notes SeaWEb.
Mercury gets into the birds’ environment in two ways. One is from burning coal. In fact, “coal-fired power plants are the most significant source of mercury pollution, emitting almost three quarters of all mercury air emissions in the U.S.” ~ MCAF mercury resource
Research conducted by biologists at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada call the ivory gull a “mercury barometer.” The researchers analyzed feather samples of the ivory gull from museums. They specifically looked at birds from the Canadian Arctic and western Greenland from 1877 to 2007. They discovered that mercury pollution has risen nearly 50-fold in the feathers of the ivory gull over the past 130 years, the BBC reported.
“We’re concerned because the mercury’s going up but their diet hasn’t changed over the 130 years we’ve studied,” lead researcher, Dr Alex Bond, told BBC News. The birds scavenge on the carcasses of whales, seals and other arctic marine mammals, which themselves could be eating fish that are concentrating mercury in their tissue.
In addition to emitting mercury and other pollutants, coal-fired plants also release carbon dioxide, a potent gas that causes climate change. This affects the ivory gull in two ways. Mercury is locked into the Arctic’s frozen ground, known as “permafrost,” says MCAF’s Molly Rauch in this informative article. As climate change heats up the planet, the thermafrost thaws, essentially unlocking mercury and releasing it into the ocean. Extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods also increase soil erosion and the amount of mercury entering our planet’s waters.
Additionally, arctic sea ice has hit an all time low, the National Snow and Ice Data Center recently announced. In fact, it’s the lowest it’s been since scientists started measuring its levels in 1979. With temperatures rising twice as fast in the polar region as in the rest of the planet, scientists predict that within decades Arctic ice could completely disappear. Since ivory gulls also depend on sea ice to survive, the loss of so much ice is also suspected to be causing their decline.
What’s the solution?
“A reduction in atmospheric mercury would be key … and that would come by burning less coal,” said climate researcher Dr Bond. Burning less coal and getting mercury emissions and other pollution under control are central to the mission of Moms Clean Air Force.
Though this particular study focused on the ivory gull, other animals, such as the ringed seal and the beluga whale, also show higher signs of mercury contamination. But this is not just a problem among non-human animals. Moms Clean Air Force reports that 1 in 10 American women of childbearing age have potentially dangerous levels of mercury in their bodies. This means that, conservatively speaking, 410,000 US children are exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the womb each year.
You can learn more about the impact mercury is having on people and the planet from this excellent overview.
To support the work Moms Clean Air Force is doing to restrict coal burning and to promote renewable energy policies that will help stop climate change, start here.