This leads to what's known as a mercury depletion event. The normally steady levels of mercury in the atmosphere quickly drop to near zero, as concentrations of mercury on the surface of the snow rise to extremely high levels.
"When we first started observing these events, we didn't know how much of that mercury returned back to the atmosphere, so the high level of mercury in snow was a great concern," Blum said. "But the more we learned, the more we realized that the sunlight shining on the snow typically will cause much of the oxidized mercury to become reduced and return to the atmosphere as a gas. And it turns out that its re-release to the atmosphere has a striking "fingerprint' that we can use to study the progress of this reaction through time."
The fingerprint is the result of a natural phenomenon called isotopic fractionation, in which different isotopes (atoms with different numbers of neutrons) of mercury react to form new compounds at slightly different rates. In one type of isotopic fractionation, mass-dependent fractionation (MDF), the differing rates depend on the masses of the isotopes. In mass-independent fractionation (MIF), the behavior of the isotopes depends not on their absolute masses but on whether their masses are odd or even.
In the work described in the Nature Geoscience paper, the researchers confirmed, through sample collection and experiments, that MIF occurs during the sunlight-driven reactions in snow, resulting in a characteristic MIF fingerprint that is absent in atmospheric mercury.
"This finding allowed us to use the MIF fingerprint to estimate how much mercury was lost from the snowpack and how much remained behind, with the potential to enter Arct
|Contact: Nancy Ross-Flanigan|
University of Michigan