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Alaska and Russia Native students participate in snow mercury testing

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Native students from Barrow and two Siberian villages are learning to collect snow samples to help scientists better understand mercury contamination in the Arctic.

Training began for five Russian high school students and two teachers this week in Nome and continues in Barrow next week for local students and teachers. The effort launches a 5-year research and education project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.

''Not only is this good science but it's a great humanitarian effort,'' said Glenn Sheehan, executive director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, which is administering the ''Mercury in Snow'' program with its Russian counterpart, the Chukotka Science Support Group.

EPA officials have agreed to commit $75,000 during the first year, Sheehan said.

Participants, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, hope to get a better handle on the scope of mercury contamination while promoting hands-on science education. According to the EPA, the study will be the first to apply a series of snow samples to track mercury concentrations from late fall through snow melt in the Arctic.

Mercury joins the list of contaminants studied in recent years as a result of a growing concern over contaminants migrating northward.

Few Arctic studies of the metal have been done. But an EPA-sponsored study by NOAA's Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Laboratory in Barrow showed mercury concentrations went through a chemical change during winter's first sunrise, said NOAA researcher Dan Endres, who runs the lab. That study suggests a potential for accumulated mercury to end up in the food chain, but Endres stressed there's no indication of toxic levels, which can cause nervous system disorders.

''I don't want to give the impression that there's a problem,'' Endres said. ''But this is a good time to make sure that it doesn't become a problem. This new study will provide a baseline, a place to start.''

Endres is training the students to collect samples.

''We're not talking rocket science here,'' Endres said. ''But this is real new stuff for these kids. We're teaching them the concept of clean techniques and how to collect new snow, not older drifting snow.''

The samples will be taken periodically and forwarded to the University of Michigan for analysis. Beside collecting the snow, students will use project computers to help interpret data.

Scientists from EPA and other participating agencies will submit yearly reports on the snow study to officials in Barrow and Russia.

Five Russian students and two teachers kicked off the project Sunday when they flew to Nome from the Russian Far East villages of Provideniya and Lavrentiya. Everyone received the tools of snow collection: bottles and scoops made of nonstick coating, lectures by Endres and hours of field practice.

The visitors, who will return to their villages Sunday, also are getting plenty of cultural exposure. They've joined Alaska Native dancers at the senior center, have toured the historical museum and have watched a recreational league basketball game.

''We visited some interesting places,'' said Lidiya Rakhto, a history and English teacher from Provideniya. ''And we are continuing to pick up the snow. The students like this.''



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