Scientists who measured the mercury levels in Yellowstone National Park recently were surprised by what they found at the base of Roaring Mountain: one of the highest levels of mercury ever found in an undisturbed natural area. Mercury is a highly toxic pollutant often associated with volcanoes, and recent reports say Yellowstone is overdue for an supervolcano eruption.

“I looked at it and did a double take,” says Mike Abbott, who measured the mercury. “I thought my instrument was busted.” Mike Stark writes in Montana Magazine that scientists are trying to discover whether the park is an major contributor of mercury in the atmosphere. Right now, the federal government is trying to regulate mercury emissions from industries such as coal-fired power plants. If Yellowstone adds significant amounts of mercury to the air, regulations on man-made sources may have to be even tougher.

Abbott says it’s possible that Yellowstone Park could emit as much mercury as all the coal-fired power plants in Wyoming put together. “It could even be bigger than that,” he says, “we just don?t know.” He was so shocked by his measurements at Roaring Mountain that he returned to Yellowstone to double-check them, and says, “It knocked me over.” He’s never seen numbers so high for a natural area that hasn’t been mined. “It’s one of the highest, if not the highest, ever measured.”

Although we understand man-made mercury emissions, we don’t understand much about natural emissions. One possibility could to be that the high levels of mercury in that area are associated with the acidic sulfate system there. However, Abbott has only taken measurements at a few sites. The unusually high level of mercury in those places raises questions about the total mercury emissions at Yellowstone.

In December 2000, the EPA announced that it would require coal-fired power plants, considered to be the largest source of mercury emissions in the country, to reduce their discharge of mercury. Visitors to Yellowstone are in no danger of mercury poisoning, since people mainly get it from eating fish. Mercury from power plants gets into waterways and contaminates the fish. When people eat the fish, they may get neurological and developmental damage, especially children and developing fetuses. Some studies have advised pregnant women to avoid eating fish.

Sudden destruction is part of life on Earth?but we’re left wondering why it happened.

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