Navigation Links
Mercury in the global ocean

Although the days of odd behavior among hat makers are a thing of the past, the dangers mercury poses to humans and the environment persist today.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element as well as a by-product of such distinctly human enterprises as burning coal and making cement. Estimates of "bioavailable" mercuryforms of the element that can be taken up by animals and humansplay an important role in everything from drafting an international treaty designed to protect humans and the environment from mercury emissions, to establishing public policies behind warnings about seafood consumption.

Yet surprisingly little is known about how much mercury in the environment is the result of human activity, or even how much bioavailable mercury exists in the global ocean. Until now.

A new paper by a group that includes researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Wright State University, Observatoire Midi-Pyrnes in France, and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research appears in this week's edition of the journal Nature and provides the first direct calculation of mercury in the global ocean from pollution based on data obtained from 12 sampling cruises over the past 8 years. The work, which was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the European Research Council and led by WHOI marine chemist Carl Lamborg, also provides a look at the global distribution of mercury in the marine environment.

"It would seem that, if we want to regulate the mercury emissions into the environment and in the food we eat, then we should first know how much is there and how much human activity is adding every year," said Lamborg, who has been studying mercury for 24 years. "At the moment, however, there is no way to look at a water sample and tell the difference between mercury that came from pollution and mercury that came from natural sources. Now we have a way to at least separate the bulk contributions of natural and human sources over time."

The group started by looking at data sets that offer detail about oceanic levels of phosphate, a substance that is both better studied than mercury and that behaves in much the same way in the ocean. Phosphate is a nutrient that, like mercury, is taken up into the marine food web by binding with organic material. By determining the ratio of phosphate to mercury in water deeper than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) that has not been in contact with Earth's atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, the group was able to estimate mercury in the ocean that originated from natural sources such as the breakdown, or "weathering," of rocks on land.

Their findings agreed with what they would expect to see given the known pattern of global ocean circulation. North Atlantic waters, for example, showed the most obvious signs of mercury from pollution because that is where surface waters sink under the influence of temperature and salinity changes to form deep and intermediate water flows. The Tropical and Northeast Pacific, on the other hand, were seen to be relatively unaffected because it takes centuries for deep ocean water to circulate to those regions.

But determining the contribution of mercury from human activity required another step. To obtain estimates for shallower waters and to provide basin-wide numbers for the amount of mercury in the global ocean, the team needed a tracera substance that could be linked back to the major activities that release mercury into the environment in the first place. They found it in one of the most well studied gases of the past 40 yearscarbon dioxide. Databases of CO2 in ocean waters are extensive and readily available for every ocean basin at virtually all depths. Because much of the mercury and CO2 from human sources derive from the same activities, the team was able to derive an index relating the two and use it to calculate the amount and distribution of mercury in the world's ocean basins that originated from human activity.

Analysis of their results showed rough agreement with the models used previouslythat the ocean contains about 60,000 to 80,000 tons of pollution mercury. In addition, they found that ocean waters shallower than about 100 m (300 feet) have tripled in mercury concentration since the Industrial Revolution and that the ocean as a whole has shown an increase of roughly 10 percent over pre-industrial mercury levels.

"With the increases we've seen in the recent past, the next 50 years could very well add the same amount we've seen in the past 150," said Lamborg. "The trouble is, we don't know what it all means for fish and marine mammals. It likely means some fish also contain at least three times more mercury than 150 years ago, but it could be more. The key is now we have some solid numbers on which to base continued work."

"Mercury is a priority environmental poison detectable wherever we look for it, including the global ocean abyss," says Don Rice, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Chemical Oceanography Program, which funded the research. "These scientists have reminded us that the problem is far from abatement, especially in regions of the world ocean where the human fingerprint is most distinct."

Contact: WHOI Media Office
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Related biology news :

1. New research shows elevated mercury from in-ground wastewater disposal
2. Research shows arsenic, mercury and selenium in Asian carp not a health concern to most
3. Virginia Tech research overturns assumption about mercury in the Arctic
4. New DRI project aimed at understanding Mercury dynamics in the Arctic tundra
5. Burning biomass pellets instead of wood or plants in China could lower mercury emissions
6. New low-cost, nondestructive technology cuts risk from mercury hot spots
7. Toxic methylmercury-producing microbes more widespread than realized
8. Mercury levels in Pacific fish likely to rise in coming decades
9. Ocean fish acquire more mercury at depth
10. Measuring mercury: Common test may overestimate exposure from dental amalgam fillings
11. U-M environmental scientist Joel Blum wins 2013 Patterson Award for research on mercury
Post Your Comments:
Related Image:
Mercury in the global ocean
(Date:11/19/2015)... 2015  Based on its in-depth analysis of the ... with the 2015 Global Frost & Sullivan Award for ... presents this award to the company that has developed ... of the market it serves. The award recognizes the ... on customer base demands, the overall impact it has ...
(Date:11/18/2015)... New York , November 18, 2015 ... Market Research has published a new market report titled ... Growth, Trends, and Forecast, 2015 - 2021. According to the ... in 2014 and is anticipated to reach US$29.1 bn ... to 2021. North America ...
(Date:11/17/2015)... , Nov. 17, 2015  Vigilant Solutions announces ... joined its Board of Directors. --> ... after recently retiring from the partnership at TPG Capital, ... companies with over $140 Billion in revenue.  He founded ... across all the TPG companies, from 1997 to 2013.  ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
(Date:11/25/2015)... ... 25, 2015 , ... A long-standing partnership between the Academy ... been formalized with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding. , AMA Executive ... Karl Minter and Capt. Albert Glenn Tuesday, November 24, 2015, at AMA Headquarters ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... ... 24, 2015 , ... The United States Golf Association (USGA) today announced Dr. ... Award. Presented annually since 1961, the USGA Green Section Award recognizes an individual’s distinguished ... , Clarke, of Iselin, N.J., is an extension specialist of turfgrass pathology in ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... ... November 24, 2015 , ... International Society for ... of the premier annual events for pharmaceutical manufacturing: 2015 Annual Meeting. The conference ... ISPE hosted the largest number of attendees in more than a decade. ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... (PRWEB) , ... November 24, 2015 , ... The Academy ... Special Interest Group (SIG), MultiGP, also known as Multirotor Grand Prix, to represent the ... last few years. Many AMA members have embraced this type of racing and several ...
Breaking Biology Technology: