Mercury in Aquatic Ecosystems
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and cycles among the atmosphere, water, and sediments. Human activities such as coal burning power plants and waste incineration increase the amount of mercury cycling in the environment. Since the industrial revolution, anthropogenic mercury emissions have increased atmospheric mercury levels about threefold, causing corresponding increases in mercury levels in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
Mercury that is released into the atmosphere can be transported long distances and deposited in aquatic ecosystems, where it is methylated to methylmercury. Mercury is a neurotoxicant, to which the human fetus is very sensitive. Methylmercury is an organic form of mercury, the most toxic form, and the form that bioaccumulates in fish. Wildlife and humans are exposed primarily through consumption of contaminated fish. The factors that make some aquatic ecosystems susceptible to this bioaccumulation, however, are unknown, making protection of human health and the health of fish-eating wildlife a challenge.
Research focuses on the processes of mercury methylation and accumulation in aquatic ecosystems, factors that determine ecosystem susceptibility, and investigation of whether reduced emissions will reduce mercury accumulation in susceptible ecosystems.
- National and Regional Assessments of Mercury Occurrence and Cycling in the Environment
- Mercury Experiment to Assess Atmospheric Loading in Canada and the United States (METAALICUS)
- Mercury Cycling in Aquatic Ecosystems
Burning coal for energy production contributes large amounts of mercury to the atmosphere. Photo Credit: Phillip J. Redman, USGS.
Program Science Feature Articles on Mercury Research
More information on Mercury Research
- Observed decrease in atmospheric mercury explained by global decline in anthropogenic emissions: Zhang, Y., Jacob, D.J., Horowitz, H.M., Chen, L., Amos, H.M., Krabbenhoft, D.P., Slemr, F., St. Louis, V.L., and Sunderland, E.M., 2016, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1516312113 (Advanced Web release).
- Use of stable isotope signatures to determine mercury sources in the Great Lakes: Lepak, R.F., Yin, R., Krabbenhoft, D.P., Ogorek, J.M., DeWild, J.F., Holsen, T.M., and Hurley, J.P., 2015, Environmental Science and Technology Letters, v. 2, no. 12, p. 335-341, doi:10.1021/acs.estlett.5b00277.
- High mercury wet deposition at a "clean air" site in puerto Rico: Shanley, J.B., Engle, M.A., Scholl, M., Krabbenhoft, D.P., Brunette, R., Olson, M.L., and Conroy, M.E., 2015, Environmental Science and Technology, doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b02430 (Advanced Web release).
- Investigating the temporal effects of metal-based coagulants to remove mercury from solution in the presence of dissolved organic matter: Henneberry, Y., Kraus, T.E.C., Krabbenhoft, D.P., and Horwath, W.R., 2015, Environmental Management, p. 1-9, doi:10.1007/s00267-015-0601-2.
- Effects of natural organic matter properties on the dissolution kinetics of zinc oxide nanoparticles: Jiang, C., Aiken, G.R., and Hsu-Kim, H., 2015, Environmental Science and Technology, v. 49, no. 19, p. 11476-11484, doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b02406.
- Influence of a chlor-alkali Superfund site on mercury bioaccumulation in periphyton and low-trophic level fauna: Buckman, K.L., Marvin-DiPasquale, M., Taylor, V.F., Chalmers, A., Broadley, H.J., Agee, J., Jackson, B.P., and Chen, C.Y., 2015, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, v. 34, no. 7, p. 1649-1658, doi:10.1002/etc.2964.
- Experimental dosing of wetlands with coagulants removes mercury from surface water and decreases mercury bioaccumulation in fish: Ackerman, J.T., Kraus, T.E.C., Fleck, J.A., Krabbenhoft, D.P., Horwath, W.R., Bachand, S.M., Herzog, M.P., Hartman, C.A., and Bachand, P.A.M., 2015, Environmental Science and Technology, v. 49, no. 10, p. 6304-6311, doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b00655.
- Females exceed males in mercury concentrations of burbot Lota lota: Madenjian, C., Stapanian, M., Cott, P., Krabbenhoft, D., Edwards, W., Ogilvie, L., Mychek-Londer, J., and DeWild, J., 2015, Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, v. 68, no. 4, p. 678-688, doi:10.1007/s00244-015-0131-1.
- Mercury distribution and mobility at the abandoned Puhipuhi mercury mine, Northland, New Zealand: Gionfriddo, C.M., Ogorek, J.M., Butcher, M., Krabbenhoft, D.P., and Moreau, J.W., 2015, New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics, v. 58, no. 1, p. 78-87, doi:10.1080/00288306.2014.979840.