Atmospheric depletion of mercury over Antarctica during glacial periods

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Mercury is a globally dispersed toxic metal that affects even remote polar areas. During seasonal atmospheric mercury depletion events in polar areas, mercury is removed from the atmosphere1,2 and subsequently deposited in the surface snows3. However, it is unknown whether these events, which have been documented for the past two decades, have occurred in the past. Here we show that over the past 670,000 years, atmospheric mercury deposition in surface snows was greater during the coldest climatic stages, coincident with the highest atmospheric dust loads. A probable explanation for this increased scavenging is that the oxidation of gaseous mercury by sea-salt-derived halogens occurred in the cold atmosphere. The oxidized mercury compounds were then transferred to the abundant mineral dust particles and deposited on the snowpack, leading to the depletion of gaseous mercury in the Antarctic atmosphere. We conclude that polar regions acted as a mercury sink during the coldest climatic stages, and that substantial polar deposition of atmospheric mercury is therefore not an exclusively recent phenomenon.

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Figure 1: Concentrations and fluxes of total mercury (HgT) to Dome C.
Figure 2: Concentrations of total mercury, inorganic mercury and methylmercury, in the EPICA Dome C ice core.


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This work is a contribution to the ‘European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica’ (EPICA), a joint ESF (European Science Foundation)/EU scientific programme, funded by the European Commission (EPICA-MIS) and by national contributions from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. This is the EPICA publication 222. In Belgium, the financial support is acknowledged from the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (FWO), Brussels, Belgium; in France from the Institut Universitaire de France, the Ministère de l’Environnement et de l’Aménagement du Territoire, the Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Energie, the Institut National des Sciences de l’Univers, the French Polar Institute (IPEV) and the Université Joseph Fourier of Grenoble; in Italy, from the Consorzio per l’Attuazione del Programma Nazionale delle Ricerche in Antartide, under projects on Environmental Contamination and Glaciology. This research has also been supported by Marie Curie Fellowships of the European Community programme (contracts HPMF-CT-2002-01772, MEIF-CT-2006-024156). We acknowledge B. Delmonte, A. Dommergue, R. Ebinghaus, S. Lindberg, C. Temme and E. Wolff for useful comments. Finally, we would like to thank all of the scientific and logistic personnel of PNRA and IPEV working at Dome C, Antarctica.

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C.F.B., C.B., C.P.F., P.C. and F.C.A. planned the project; P.G., A.M., P.-A.G. and S.H. carried out sample preparation; P.G., A.M. and F.A.M.P. determined total mercury; P.J. carried out mercury speciation; P.G., J.M.C.P., C.B. and P.J. carried out the data interpretation and wrote the paper.

Correspondence to Paolo Gabrielli.

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