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Riverine source of Arctic Ocean mercury inferred from atmospheric observations

Nature Geoscience volume 5, pages 499504 (2012) | Download Citation


Methylmercury is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in aquatic food webs. Human activities, including industry and mining, have increased inorganic mercury inputs to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Methylation of this mercury generates methylmercury, and is thus a public health concern. Marine methylmercury is a particular concern in the Arctic, where indigenous peoples rely heavily on marine-based diets. In the summer, atmospheric inorganic mercury concentrations peak in the Arctic, whereas they reach a minimum in the northern mid-latitudes. Here, we use a global three-dimensional ocean–atmosphere model to examine the cause of this Arctic summertime maximum. According to our simulations, circumpolar rivers deliver large quantities of mercury to the Arctic Ocean during summer; the subsequent evasion of this riverine mercury to the atmosphere can explain the summertime peak in atmospheric mercury levels. We infer that rivers are the dominant source of mercury to the Arctic Ocean on an annual basis. Our simulations suggest that Arctic Ocean mercury concentrations could be highly sensitive to climate-induced changes in river flow, and to increases in the mobility of mercury in soils, for example as a result of permafrost thaw and forest fires.

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This work was financially supported by the Arctic System Science Program of the US National Science Foundation. Financial support for the Alert and Amderma data sets was provided by the Northern Contaminants Program, Environment Canada and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme. We thank A. Cole for providing the Alert data; A. Konoplev and F. Pankratov at SPA Typhoon in Obninsk, Russia for providing the Amderma data; K. A. Pfaffhuber, T. Berg and the Chemical Co-ordinating Centre of EMEP for providing the Zeppelin data; and E. Corbitt and C. Holmes for helpful conversations.

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  1. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Jenny A. Fisher
    • , Daniel J. Jacob
    •  & Helen M. Amos
  2. School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Daniel J. Jacob
    • , Anne L. Soerensen
    •  & Elsie M. Sunderland
  3. Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA

    • Anne L. Soerensen
    •  & Elsie M. Sunderland
  4. Air Quality Processes Research Section, Environment Canada, Toronto, Ontario M3H 5T4, Canada

    • Alexandra Steffen


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J.A.F. designed, performed and interpreted the model simulations. D.J.J. and E.M.S. supervised the research and contributed significantly to interpretation of the results. A.L.S. and H.M.A. developed major components of the model. A.S. collected the Alert data. J.A.F. wrote the paper, and all authors edited and revised the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jenny A. Fisher.

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