Comparison of mercury mass loading in streams to atmospheric deposition in watersheds of Western North America: Evidence for non-atmospheric mercury sources

Science of the Total Environment
By: , and 

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Abstract

Annual stream loads of mercury (Hg) and inputs of wet and dry atmospheric Hg deposition to the landscape were investigated in watersheds of the Western United States and the Canadian-Alaskan Arctic. Mercury concentration and discharge data from flow gauging stations were used to compute annual mass loads with regression models. Measured wet and modeled dry deposition were compared to annual stream loads to compute ratios of Hg stream load to total Hg atmospheric deposition. Watershed land uses or cover included mining, undeveloped, urbanized, and mixed. Of 27 watersheds that were investigated, 15 had some degree of mining, either of Hg or precious metals (gold or silver), where Hg was used in the amalgamation process. Stream loads in excess of annual Hg atmospheric deposition (ratio > 1) were observed in watersheds containing Hg mines and in relatively small and medium-sized watersheds with gold or silver mines, however, larger watersheds containing gold or silver mines, some of which also contain large dams that trap sediment, were sometimes associated with lower load ratios (< 0.2). In the non-Arctic regions, watersheds with natural vegetation tended to have low ratios of stream load to Hg deposition (< 0.1), whereas urbanized areas had higher ratios (0.34–1.0) because of impervious surfaces. This indicated that, in ecosystems with natural vegetation, Hg is retained in the soil and may be transported subsequently to streams as a result of erosion or in association with dissolved organic carbon. Arctic watersheds (Mackenzie and Yukon Rivers) had a relatively elevated ratio of stream load to atmospheric deposition (0.27 and 0.74), possibly because of melting glaciers or permafrost releasing previously stored Hg to the streams. Overall, our research highlights the important role of watershed characteristics in determining whether a landscape is a net source of Hg or a net sink of atmospheric Hg.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Comparison of mercury mass loading in streams to atmospheric deposition in watersheds of Western North America: Evidence for non-atmospheric mercury sources
Series title Science of the Total Environment
DOI 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.02.112
Volume 568
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Contaminant Biology Program, John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, California Water Science Center, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
Description 13 p.
First page 638
Last page 650