Volcanic Activity Supplies ‘Natural’ Mercury To Antarctic Glaciers, Not Humans

Numerous media articles are claiming that the discovery of mercury and associated methyl mercury in West Antarctic Glaciers is a major manmade environmental disaster, however, these claims are incorrect because this mercury is actually from local volcanic sources. Research studies prove that mercury is common and naturally generated, and then naturally altered to methyl mercury in volcanic environments (see here, see here, see here).

Figure 1: Antarctic Continent with active: land volcanoes (red dots), ocean floor active volcanoes (red dots) and two segments of the 5,000-mile long West Antarctic Rift / Fault System (hatched black lines).

Figure 1: Antarctic Continent with active: land volcanoes (red dots), ocean floor active volcanoes (red dots) and two segments of the 5,000-mile long West Antarctic Rift / Fault System (hatched black lines).

The Antarctic Glaciers that recently tested positive for small amounts of mercury lie directly above the West Antarctic Rift , one of Earth’s largest and still volcanically active tectonic plate boundaries (Figure 1). This 5,000-mile long giant crack in Earth’s upper crust is literally ripping the entire Antarctic continent apart, thereby generating huge deep reaching open fractures that act to connect surface rock layers and ecosystems with vast quantities of heated, chemically charged, and mercury rich fluids.

Instead of being a manmade environmental disaster, the presence of mercury in West Antarctic glaciers is actually strong evidence that natural geological forces are at work in this region. It works like this.

Let’s begin by dispelling a misconception. Contrary to common opinion the entire Antarctic Continent is actually volcanically active, especially the portion that lies directly atop the West Antarctic Rift / Fault System. This may seem counterintuitive because much of Antarctica’s surface is covered by ice. However, in a few locations on the surface, many locations beneath the ice, and many locations beneath Antarctica’s surrounding oceans circumstances are very different. Here geologically induced volcanic activity is surprisingly active.

First, there are three currently erupting volcanoes associated with the West Antarctica Rift / Fault trend; Mount Erebus (central portion of the Rift), Mount Surabaya (northern portion of the Rift), and Mount Curry (northern portion of the Rift). The Mount Surabaya and Mount Curry eruptions have been prominently mentioned in recent media articles documenting massive amounts of chemical-laden ash that threatens the life of one million penguins (Figure 2). Ash from these land-based West Antarctic Rift / Fault  volcanic eruptions is proven to contain natural mercury (see quote and reference below). This mercury is currently being incorporated into the surface of vast regions of glacial ice and ocean waters surrounding Antarctica (Figure 3).

“Mercury is released by most volcanoes and has been measured at Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Hekla, Erebus, at Mount St. Helens (Siegel and Siegel, 1987). The Kilauea volcano produces about 270 tons of mercury each year and has been identified as the source of mercury on Oahu, 320 km away.” (http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/book/export/html/151

Figure 2: The on-going eruption of Mount Curry.

Figure 2: The on-going eruption of Mount Curry.


Figure 3: Ash coats glacial ice.

Figure 3: Ash coats glacial ice.

Secondly, researchers recently discovered a 500-mile long string of currently active deep ocean volcanoes (seamounts) and associated hydrothermal vents along the subsea northern end of the West Antarctic Rift / Fault (Figure 4). Many recent and reliable research studies prove that mercury is proven to be generated naturally in deep ocean hydrothermal vents (see here, here, and References Appendix).

Figure 4: Seafloor image of a 500-mile long string of multiple 3,000-foot high active seafloor volcanoes located adjacent to the northern portion of the Antarctic Continent. (http://aem.asm.org/content/73/7/2230.full).

Figure 4: Seafloor image of a 500-mile long string of multiple 3,000-foot high active seafloor volcanoes located adjacent to the northern portion of the Antarctic Continent. (http://aem.asm.org/content/73/7/2230.full).

Other significant indications that the entire Antarctic Continent is volcanically active include:

  • The existence of a huge interconnected network subglacial freshwater lakes and streams. This system is generated and maintained by geologically induced chemically charged hot springs that are proven to exist along the full length of the West Antarctic Rift / Fault trend (see here).
  • Recent volcanic activity in Antarctica’s Kerguelen Plateau, including the recent eruption of the Big Ben volcano, is the likely source of significant warming and chemical charging of the ocean in this region (see here).
  • Discovery of a huge sub-glacial lake caused by geothermal / fault induced heat flow in East Antarctic (see here).
  • Research confirming that melting of selected West Antarctic Glaciers is from natural and non-human induced heat (see here).
  • Antarctica Ice Core information clearly shows that huge sub- polar ice cap West Antarctic volcanic eruptions have occurred on a regular basis, for instance, 44,000 and one 22,000 years ago. These monstrous eruptions broke through the ancient ice and spewed huge amounts of chemically charged ash onto the ancient ice sheets and into surrounding ancient oceans (see here).

In summary, most scientists agree that life on earth originated billions of years ago in the deep dark recesses of our oceans where hydrothermal vents provided just the right mixture of heat, chemicals, metals such as mercury and nutrient rich seawater. This general knowledge and information from numerous reliable research studies indicate that the presence of mercury or methyl mercury is not in of itself proof that humans have interfered with ecosystems. When considering the historical and present day geological setting of Antarctica it becomes clear that the presence of rare metals in glacial ice of this region is most likely of natural origin, specifically natural geological  forces.

Involvement of manmade global warming / climate change has been greatly overstated.

James Edward Kamis is a Geologist and AAPG member of 42 years with a B.S. and M.S. in geology who has always been fascinated by the connection between Geology and Climate. More than 11 years of research / observation have convinced him that the Earth’s Heat Flow Engine, which drives the outer crustal plates, is also an important driver of the Earth’s climate. The Plate Climatology Theory (plateclimatology.com) was recently presented at the annual 2016 American Metrological Society Conference in New Orleans, LA. (see here)


http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a6788/enormous-underwater-volcanoes-discovered-near-antarctica/ Deep ocean volcanoes north of Antarctica)


http://www.janethull.com/newsletter/0712/mercury_from_volcanoes.php Worldwide mercury from volcanoes on land and in ocean

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969700005581 Mercury from Europe Volcanoes

http://noc.ac.uk/science-technology/earth-ocean-system/seafloor/hydrothermal-vents Antarctica Hydrothermal Vents

http://phys.org/news/2010-03-scientists-apparent-hydrothermal-vents-antarctica.html#nRlv Antarctica Hydrothermal Vents

http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/volcanocarb.htm volcanoes end ice age in Ordovician

http://www.int-res.com/abstracts/meps/v320/p253-258/ Methyl mercury in Mid-Atlantic Rift Vent Regions

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080629081932.htm Volcanic Mercury








http://phys.org/news/2013-02-shimmering-reveals-cold-volcanic-vent.html Antarctic Cold Vents









Comments (3)

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    Are scary global warming stories the modern version of “if it bleeds it leads ” ?
    Try and send out 10 positive environment articles, like global warming is actually better than cooling and when none get printed it will confirm what the public already knows . The media have only themselves to blame for the free fall in readership and credibility . They placed a bet that they could get a free pass and churn out chicken little the earth has a fever stories forever . At least with the 1970’s global cooling extravaganza they eventually dropped that con however there was a lot less money involved on that big whopper and the media weren’t on the edge of insolvency .
    Thanks for the internet Al .

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    What’s the mercury story you’re referring to at the top, that’s getting so much press coverage?

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    One of the more prominent articles referring to the Antarctic Glacier Mercury “contamination” is listed below. The authors mention the possible natural volcanic sourcing in passing, but then go on to greatly emphasize manmade contamination. They completely omit the very important geological setting of this western portion of Antarctica.

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