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Mercury is converted to oxidized species in the upper atmosphere facilitating its entrance into the food chain


Humans pump thousands of tons of vapor from the metallic element mercury into the atmosphere each year, and it can remain suspended for long periods before being changed into a form that is easily removed from the atmosphere (see our News about Anthropogenic mercury releases).

The new study:
U.S. Researcher now reported the result of their simultaneous measurements of elemental and oxidized mercury concentrations in air of stratospheric origin, collected during research flights in October and November 2010 over North America and Europe by a National Center for Atmospheric Research aircraft.

“The upper atmosphere is acting as a chemical reactor to make the mercury more able to be deposited to ecosystems,” said Seth Lyman, who did the work as a research assistant professor in science and technology at the University of Washington Bothell.

Lyman, now with Utah State University’s Energy Dynamics Laboratory, is lead author of a paper documenting the research published online Dec. 19 by the journal Nature Geoscience. Daniel Jaffe, a science and technology professor at UW Bothell, is coauthor of the paper. The work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The campaign used a dual channel mercury analzer built at UW Bothell that can detect total mercury as well as both elemental mercury and oxidized mercury in simultaneous 2.5min intervals. The flights typically are at altitudes of 19,000 to 23,000 feet, well below the confluence of the troposphere and the stratosphere, but several times during the 2010 flights – particularly on a trip from Bangor, Maine, to Broomfield, Colo. – the aircraft encountered streams of air that had descended from the stratosphere or from near it.

The result was the first time that the two mercury forms were measured together in a way that showed that elemental mercury is transformed into oxidized mercury, Lyman said, and evidence indicated the process occurs in the upper atmosphere.

Exactly how the oxidation takes place is not known with certainty but, once the transformation takes place, the oxidized mercury is quickly removed from the atmosphere, mostly through precipitation or air moving to the surface. After it settles to the surface, the oxidized mercury is transformed by bacteria into methyl mercury, a form that can be taken into the food chain and eventually can result in mercury-contaminated fish.

Some areas, such as the Southwest United States, appear to have specific climate conditions that allow them to receive more oxidized mercury from the upper atmosphere than other areas, Lyman noted.

He added that where the mercury settles to the surface can be thousands of miles from where it was emitted. For example, mercury from coal burning in Asia could rise into the atmosphere and circle the globe several times before it is oxidized, then could come to the surface anywhere. Understanding where it is oxidized and deposited would help efforts to predict ecosystem impacts of mercury emissions, he said.

“Much of emitted mercury is deposited far from its original sources,” Lyman said. “Mercury emitted on the other side of the globe could be deposited right at our back door, depending on where and how it is transported, chemically transformed and deposited.”

Source: Adapted from University of Washington

The new study

Seth N. Lyman, Daniel A. Jaffe, Formation and fate of oxidized mercury in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere, Nature Geoscience (2011) doi:10.1038/ngeo1353

Related studies (newest first)

C.D. Holmes, D.J. Jacob, E.S. Corbitt, J. Mao, X. Yang, R. Talbot, F. Slemr, Global atmospheric model for mercury including oxidation by bromine atoms, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 10 (2010) 12037–12057. doi: 10.5194/acp-10-12037-2010

C.D. Holmes, D.J. Jacob, E.S. Corbitt, J. Mao, X. Yang, R. Talbot, F. Slemr, Global atmospheric model for mercury including oxidation by bromine atoms, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 10 (2010) 12037–12057. doi:10.5194/acp-10-12037-2010

N.E. Selin, Global biogeochemical cycling of mercury: A review, Annu. Rev. Environ. Res. 34 (2009) 43–63. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.environ.051308.084314

F. Slemr, R. Ebinghaus, C.A. M. Brenninkmeijer, M. Hermann, H.H. Kock, B.G. Martinsson, T. Schuck, D. Sprung, P. van Velthoven, A. Zahn, H. Ziereis, Gaseous mercury distribution in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere observed onboard the CARIBIC passenger aircraft, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 9 (2009) 1957-1969. doi:10.5194/acp-9-1957-2009

P. Weiss-Penzias, M.S. Gustin, S.N. Lyman, Observations of speciated atmospheric mercury at three sites in Nevada: Evidence for a free tropospheric source of reactive gaseous mercury, J. Geophys. Res., 114 (2009) D14302. doi: 10.1029/2008JD011607

X. Fain, D. Obrist, A.G. Hallar, I. McCubbin, T. Rahn, High levels of reactive gaseous mercury observed at a high elevation research laboratory in the Rocky Mountains, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 9 (2009) 8049–8060. doi: 10.5194/acp-9-8049-2009

P.C. Swartzendruber, D. Chand, D.A. Jaffe, J. Smith, D. Reidmiller, L. Gratz, J. Keeler, S. Strode, L. Jaeglé, Vertical distribution of mercury, CO, ozone, and aerosol scattering coefficient in the Pacific Northwest during the spring 2006 INTEX-B campaign, J. Geophys. Res., 113 (2008) D10305. doi: 10.1029/2007JD009579

N.E. Selin, D.J. Jacob, Seasonal and spatial patterns of mercury wet deposition in the United States: Constraints on the contribution from North American anthropogenic sources, Atmos. Environ., 42 (2008) 5193–5204. doi: 10.1016/j.atmosenv.2008.02.069

R. Talbot, H. Mao, E. Scheuer, J. Dibb, M. Avery, Total depletion of Hg in the upper troposphere–lower stratosphere, Geophys. Res. Lett. 34 (2007) L23804. doi: 10.1029/2007GL031366

A.P. Rutter, J.J. Schauer, The effect of temperature on the gas-particle partitioning of reactive mercury in atmospheric aerosols, Atmos. Environ., 41 (2007) 8647–8657. doi: 10.1016/j.atmosenv.2007.07.024

Huiting Mao, Robert W. Talbot, Barkley C. Sive, Su Youn Kim, Donald R. Blake und Andrew J. Weinheimer, Arctic mercury depletion and its quantitative link with halogens, Atmos. Environ. 41, 8647–8657 (2007). doi: 10.1007/s10874-011-9186-1

D.M. Murphy, P.K. Hudson, D.S. Thomson, P.J. Sheridan, J.C. Wilson, Observations of mercury-containing aerosols, Environ. Sci. Technol., 40 (2006) 3163–3167. doi: 10.1021/es052385x

P.C. Swartzendruber, D.A. Jaffe, E.M. Prestbo, P. Weiss-Penzias, N.E. Selin, R.  Park, D.J. Jacob, S. Strode, L. Jaeglé, Observations of reactive gaseous mercury in the free troposphere at the Mt. Bachelor Observatory,  J. Geophys. Res., 111 (2006) D24301. doi:10.1029/2006JD007415

H. Skov, Jesper H. Christensen, Michael E. Goodsite, Niels Z. Heidam, Bjarne Jensen, Peter Wåhlin, Gerald Geernaert, Fate of elemental mercury in the Arctic during atmospheric mercury depletion episodes and the load of atmospheric mercury to the Arctic, Environ. Sci. Technol., 38 (2004) 2373–2382. doi: 10.1021/es030080h

W.F. Fitzgerald, D.R. Engstrom, R.P. Mason, E.A. Nater, The case for atmospheric mercury contamination in remote areas, Environ. Sci. Technol. 32 (1998) 1–7. doi:  10.1021/es970284w

D.M. Murphy, D.S. Thomson, M.J. Mahoney, In Situ Measurements of Organics, Meteoritic Material, Mercury, and Other Elements in Aerosols at 5 to 19 Kilometers, Science, 282/5394 (1998) 1664-1669. DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5394.1664

 Related EVISA Resources

Link database: Mercury pollution
Link database: Environmental cycling of mercury

Related EVISA News

December 19, 2011: Anthropogenic Mercury Releases Into the Atmosphere from Ancient to Modern Time
October 15, 2011, Mercury pollution in the Great Lakes region -- nearly forgotten, but not gone
June 17, 2009: 'Surprisingly High Levels' of Methylmercury Contamination found in Groundwater
May 3, 2009: Ocean mercury on the rise
February 18, 2007: New research results suggest that mercury hotspots in the northeastern US are home made
October 9, 2006: Linking atmospheric mercury to methylmercury in fish

last time modified: December 20, 2011


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