ANN ARBOR, Mich.---A study by University of Michigan researchers offers new insight into what happens to mercury deposited onto Arctic snow from the atmosphere.
The work also provides a new approach to tracking mercury's movement through Arctic ecosystems.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element, but some 2000 tons of it enter the global environment each year from human-generated sources such as coal-burning power plants, incinerators and chlorine-producing plants.
"When released into the atmosphere in its reduced form, mercury is not very reactive. It can float around in the atmosphere as a gas for a year or more, and it's not really an environmental problem at the concentrations at which it occurs," said Joel Blum, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Geological Sciences.
But once mercury is oxidized, through a process that involves sunlight and often the element bromine, it becomes very reactive. Deposited onto land or into water, the mercury is picked up by microorganisms, which convert some of it to methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish and the animals that eat them.
As bigger animals eat smaller ones, the methylmercury is concentrated. In wildlife, exposure to methylmercury can interfere with reproduction, growth, development and behavior and may even cause death. Effects on humans include damage to the central nervous system, heart and immune system. The developing brains of young and unborn children are especially vulnerable.
The research is described in a paper published online Feb. 7 in the journal Nature Geoscience.
In the Arctic, mercury remains in its benign gaseous form through the dark winter, because there's no sunlight to drive oxidation and little bromine to catalyze the process. But in polar springtime, that all changes. As sea ice breaks up, water vapor rises in great clouds through the openings in the ice, bringing with it bromine from the sea water
|Contact: Nancy Ross-Flanigan|
University of Michigan