Ritchie County native’s Arctic expedition published in journal
RENO, Nev. – A Ritchie County native made headlines in scientific publications across the nation when the results of his Arctic research expedition were published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.
The results of the study, co-authored by Daniel Obrist of the Nevada Desert Research Institute, have proven so ground-breaking that they have been spoken about in more than a dozen scientific publications, including the Los Angeles Times environment homepage, Scientific American magazine, NASA publications, Live Science publications, EarthSky.org and ClimateCentral.org.
Chris Moore, a native of Ritchie County, was raised locally on Mellin Ridge between Harrisville and Smithville. He graduated from Ritchie County High School in 1998, before heading to West Virginia University Institute of Technology in Montgomery, W.Va., for his bachelor’s degree.
A master’s degree from the University of Virginia and a doctoral degree from the University of Maryland eventually found him working as an assistant research professor at the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., alongside his eventual research co-author, Obrist.
Moore’s parents, Darrell Moore and Terri Moore, still live in Ritchie County. His wife, Michelle Flanary-Moore, grew up in Vienna. Moore’s in-laws, Leroy and Brenda Flanary, live in Vienna.
In March 2012, Moore and his research team headed to Barrow, Alaska, which is inside the Arctic Circle, to perform research on how the cycling of mercury and ozone is impacted by changes in sea ice, Moore said.
Barrow is the northern-most city in America. Only nine other cities in the world are closer to the North Pole than Barrow is.
Their research discovered a physical link between the behavior of the sea ice and the Arctic’s changing atmospheric chemistry that can potentially lead to increased mercury deposits on the sea ice in the Arctic Circle.
“Mercury is a naturally occurring element, and it is everywhere,” Moore said.
Mercury is found in the soil, the water and even the air that we breathe, Moore said. Mercury likes to stay in the atmosphere once it is there, and is measured as a global background unit, he said.
For 20 years, researches have known that an atmospheric reaction causes the mercury from the shallow layers of the atmosphere in a region to turn into solid forms and layer across the sea ice in low temperature environments, Moore said.
Their research determined that mercury from higher levels of the atmosphere can be drawn down and deposited on the sea ice as well when the Arctic air is disturbed by a pumping action, Moore said.
This mechanism has the potential to deposit hundreds of tons of mercury across the Arctic every year, Moore said. But until now, no one understood exactly how the upper atmosphere layers were involved or how the process was connected to other natural occurrences.
The team studied spontaneously forming cracks in the sea ice known as leads during their time in the Arctic. They contain warmer water than elsewhere in the Arctic Ocean, melting the ice above and exposing the warm water to the colder Arctic air, Moore said.
These leads often appear without warning, Moore said. They are often 5 to 10 miles wide and hundreds of miles long. Within two days, they will freeze over again, vanishing from the Arctic landscape, Moore said.
In their wake, layers of mercury are often found atop surrounding Arctic Ocean ice. Scientists have known that these leads exist for many years, Moore said.
The research team discovered a link between the formation of these leads in the sea ice and the deposits of mercury in the surrounding areas, Moore said. They discovered that the reaction is not a chemical process, as scientists have suspected for years, but rather a physical process that is naturally explained, Moore said.
When a lead opens up, the warmer water underneath is exposed to the colder Arctic air above it, causing turbulence, Moore said.
“Think of boiling a pot on your stove,” Moore said. “When the pot starts to boil, you can see that the steam causes turbulence in the air above the pot,” he said.
The turbulent air creates a pumping effect which draws layers of the upper atmosphere, along with the chemicals it naturally contains, down to the lower atmosphere, Moore said. Once the layer is lowered, it behaves as the lower levels of atmosphere do, adding its mercury to the ice deposit as well, Moore said.
His research discovered that the turbulence in the air, caused by the steam coming off the water, irritates the shallow layers of the atmosphere, and causes the mercury near the surface to solidify and deposit on the ice, Moore said
Their research method involved taking measurements of mercury and ozone in the air both near and away from open leads, Moore said. They coupled these measurements with backward-trajectory air readings taken every few hours.
The readings of mercury that were taken from the air ranged between zero and global background levels, Moore said.
When they combined this information, they could track whether the air in each measurement had passed over an open lead or not, Moore said. They studied how the mercury and ozone readings from the air that had passed over open leads compared to those readings from air which had not passed over open leads.
Once all of their information was combined, they determined that the process of mercury depositing on the ice happens naturally, but has the potential to become worse based on global pollution and global warming, he said.
The global background levels of mercury increase in the atmosphere when certain chemicals, including coal, are burned as fuel, Moore said. The United States is good about using scrubbers to clean mercury and other pollutants out of fuel smoke before it is released, but other countries rarely follow this practice, he said.
Artisanal gold mining practices in developing countries also add to the mercury pollution problem, Moore said. These practices traditionally mix mercury into their sluice boxes in order to capture the gold among the dirt easily since gold sticks to mercury.
The mercury is then burned off in a pan over a fire, turning the mercury to vapor that mixes with the air while leaving only the gold in the pan, Moore said.
The increase in airborne mercury worldwide means that there is more mercury in the various layers of the atmosphere to be caught in the turbulence and pulled down to the surface over an open lead in the sea ice, Moore said.
When combined with the increased heat of global warming, which causes the temperature of the Arctic Ocean to rise and form more leads every year, these two factors can potentially add up to increased levels of mercury in the environment, he said.
The mercury that is deposited on the sea ice in solid form is the same toxic pollutant that people fear being exposed to, Moore said.
When the sea ice melts in the summer, the mercury ends up in the ocean water. It is absorbed into the plants and the fish nearby, Moore said. Then, the mercury affects the animals who eat the fish, and the toxic chemical continues up the food chain until it eventually reaches the humans who eat the mercury-tainted meat and plants, Moore said.
But spending a month inside the Arctic Circle isn’t all serious business, Moore said. He and his research team brought back many good memories of their time on top of the Arctic Ocean.
“Stepping off the plane in Barrow was like stepping into a giant freezer,” Moore said, adding even though it was his second trip to the Arctic Circle, the cold is still surprising.
The group members frequently found themselves working in temperatures as cold as negative 30 degrees, Moore said. Often, this involved trying to use small glass pieces and fragile equipment for collecting their samples while trying not to shiver.
No one in the group suffered from frost bite, although it was so cold that the moisture in the breath they exhaled turned into icicles on their eyebrows and facial hair, Moore said.
The month-long expedition required a local bear guide to guard the researches any time they were working directly out on the sea ice. At one point, a curious polar bear wandered within 20 yards of their research camp before the bear guide was able to scare him away, Moore said.