Hydroelectric energy could increase harmful pollutant in Arctic

View of Lake Melville

Concentrations of methylmercury — a neurotoxicant that can accumulate in fish — have been rising in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions due to melting sea ice. A new study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers suggests that hydroelectric development will cause even higher amounts of methylmercury to surge through Arctic waterways, making fish unsafe to eat and devastating Inuit communities that rely on living off the land.

The study appeared in the September 8, 2015 issue of PNAS.

In a four-year investigation, Elsie Sunderland, associate professor of environmental science and engineering, and colleagues reviewed the potential environmental impact from the planned Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam in Labrador, Canada. Construction would necessitate flooding a large region upstream from a lake used by people in Nunatsiavut, the first autonomous region in Canada governed by Inuit.

Postdoctoral fellow Amina Schartup, the paper’s first author, on Lake Melville.
Postdoctoral fellow Amina Schartup, the paper’s first author, on Lake Melville.

The researchers’ work — which resulted in important discoveries about how methylmercury accumulates in the ecosystem — showed that flooding would lead to substantial increases in concentrations of this toxin, highlighting the need for mitigation efforts.

“Scientists have a responsibility to understand and explain how environmental systems will react before they are modified,” postdoctoral fellow Amina Schartup, the paper’s first author, said in a Harvard Gazette article. “Because once the damage is done, you can’t take it back.”

Read study abstract: Freshwater discharges drive high levels of methylmercury in Arctic marine biota

Read Harvard Gazette article: Poison in Arctic and human cost of ‘clean’ energy