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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $15.58 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Schroeder, J. P. et al. Arctic springtime depletion of mercury. Nature 394, 331–332 (1998).
Ebinghaus, R. et al. Antarctic springtime depletion of atmospheric mercury. Environ. Sci. Technol. 36, 1238–1244 (2002).
Lindberg, S. E. et al. Dynamic oxidation of gaseous mercury in the arctic troposphere at polar sunrise. Environ. Sci. Technol. 36, 1245–1256 (2002).
Boutron, C. F., Vandal, G. M., Fitzgerald, W. F. & Ferrari, C. A forty year record of mercury in central Greenland snow. Geophys. Res. Lett. 25, 3315–3318 (1998).
Vandal, G. M., Fitzgerald, W. F., Boutron, C. F. & Candelone, J. P. Variations in mercury deposition to Antarctica over the past 34,000 years. Nature 362, 621–623 (1993).
EPICA community members. Eight glacial cycles from an Antarctic ice core. Nature 429, 623–628 (2004).
Gabrielli, P. et al. Variations in atmospheric trace elements in Dome C (East Antarctica) ice over the last two climatic cycles. Atmos. Environ. 39, 6420–6429 (2005).
Lambert, F. et al. Dust-climate couplings over the past 800,000 years from the EPICA Dome C ice core. Nature 452, 616–619 (2008).
Fischer, H. et al. Reconstruction of millennial changes in dust emission, transport and regional sea ice coverage using the deep EPICA ice cores from the Atlantic and Indian Ocean sector of Antarctica. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 260, 340–354 (2007).
Wolff, E. W. et al. Southern Ocean sea-ice extent, productivity and iron flux over the past eight glacial cycles. Nature 440, 491–496 (2006).
Pongratz, P. & Heumann, K. G. Production of methylated mercury, lead and cadmium by marine bacteria as significant source for atmospheric heavy metals in polar regions. Chemosphere 39, 89–102 (1999).
St Louis, V. L. et al. Methylated mercury species in Canadian high Arctic marine surface waters and snowpacks. Environ. Sci. Technol. 41, 6433–6441 (2007).
Steffen, A. et al. A synthesis of atmospheric mercury depletion event chemistry in the atmosphere and snow. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 8, 1445–1482 (2008).
McConnell, J. C. et al. Photochemical bromine production implicated in Arctic boundary-layer ozone depletion. Nature 355, 150–152 (1992).
Rankin, A. M., Wolff, E. W. & Martin, S. Frost flowers: Implications for tropospheric chemistry and ice core interpretation. J. Geophys. Res. 107, 4683–4697 (2002).
Gauchard, P. A. et al. Study of the origin of atmospheric mercury depletion events recorded in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, spring 2003. Atmos. Environ. 39, 7620–7632 (2005).
Foster, K. L. et al. The role of Br2 and BrCl in surface ozone destruction at polar sunrise. Science 291, 471–474 (2001).
Saiz-Lopez, A. et al. Boundary layer halogens in coastal Antarctica. Science 317, 348–351 (2007).
Goodsite, M., Plane, J. M. C. & Skov, H. A theoretical study of the oxidation of Hg0 to HgBr2 in the troposphere. Environ. Sci. Technol. 38, 1772–1776 (2004).
Brooks, S. B. et al. The mass balance of mercury in the springtime Arctic environment. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L13812 (2006).
Jouzel, J. et al. Orbital and millennial Antarctic climate variability over the past 800,000 years. Science 317, 793–796 (2007).
Afeefy, H. Y., Liebman, J. F. & Stein, S. E. in NIST Chemistry WebBook (eds Linstrom, P. J. & Mallard, W. G.) (National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2009).
Planchon, F. et al. Direct determination of mercury at the sub-picogram per gram levels in polar snow and ice by ICP-SFMS. J. Anal. Atom. Spectrom. 19, 823–830 (2004).
Jitaru, P. & Adams, F. C. Speciation analysis of mercury by solid-phase microextraction and multicapillary gas chromatography hyphenated to inductively coupled plasma–time-of-flight-mass spectrometry. J. Chromatogr. A. 1055, 197–207 (2004).
Wedepohl, K. H. The composition of the continental crust. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 59, 1217–1232 (1995).
Pyle, D. M. & Mather, T. A. The importance of volcanic emissions for the global atmospheric mercury cycle. Atmos. Environ. 37, 5115–5124 (2003).
Gill, G. A. & Fitzgerald, W. F. Picomolar mercury measurements in seawater and other materials using stannous chloride reduction and two-stage gold amalgamation with gas phase detection. Mar. Chem. 20, 227–243 (1987).
Prospero, J. M., Savoie, D. L., Saltzman, E. S. & Larsen, R. Impact of oceanic sources of biogenic sulphur on sulphate aerosol concentrations at Mawson, Antarctica. Nature 350, 221–223 (1991).
Kim, J. P. & Fitzgerald, W. F. Sea-air partitioning of mercury in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean. Science 231, 1131–1133 (1986).
Cline, J. D. & Bates, T. S. Dimethyl sulfide in the equatorial pacific ocean: A natural source of sulfur to the atmosphere. Geophys. Res. Lett. 10, 949–952 (1983).
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.
About this article
Thawing of snow and ice caused extraordinary high and fast mercury fluxes to lake sediments in Antarctica
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta (2019)
Quaternary Science Reviews (2019)
Atomistic View of Mercury Cycling in Polar Snowpacks: Probing the Role of Hg2+ Adsorption Using Ab Initio Calculations
Science of The Total Environment (2019)
Environmental Science & Technology (2018)