The work also provides a new approach to tracking mercury's movement through Arctic ecosystems.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element, but some 2000 tons of it enter the global environment each year from human-generated sources such as coal-burning power plants, incinerators and chlorine-producing plants.
"When released into the atmosphere in its reduced form, mercury is not very reactive. It can float around in the atmosphere as a gas for a year or more, and it's not really an environmental problem at the concentrations at which it occurs," said Joel Blum, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Geological Sciences.
But once mercury is oxidized, through a process that involves sunlight and often the element bromine, it becomes very reactive. Deposited onto land or into water, the mercury is picked up by microorganisms, which convert some of it to methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish and the animals that eat them.
As bigger animals eat smaller ones, the methylmercury is concentrated. In wildlife, exposure to methylmercury can interfere with reproduction, growth, development and behavior and may even cause death. Effects on humans include damage to the central nervous system, heart and immune system. The developing brains of young and unborn children are especially vulnerable.
The research is described in a paper published online Feb. 7 in the journal Nature Geoscience.
In the Arctic, mercury remains in its benign gaseous form through the dark winter, because there's no sunlight to drive oxidation and little bromine to catalyze the process. But in polar springtime, that all changes. As sea ice breaks up, water vapor rises in great clouds through the openings in the ice, bringing with it bromine from the sea water. The bromine enters the atmosphere, where it conspires with sunlight to convert mercury gas into the reactive form. The activated mercury sticks to snowflakes and ice crystals in the air and travels with them onto the surface of the snow.
This leads to what's known as a mercury depletion event. The normally steady levels of mercury in the atmosphere quickly drop to near zero, as concentrations of mercury on the surface of the snow rise to extremely high levels.
"When we first started observing these events, we didn't know how much of that mercury returned back to the atmosphere, so the high level of mercury in snow was a great concern," Blum said. "But the more we learned, the more we realized that the sunlight shining on the snow typically will cause much of the oxidized mercury to become reduced and return to the atmosphere as a gas. And it turns out that its re-release to the atmosphere has a striking "fingerprint' that we can use to study the progress of this reaction through time."
The fingerprint is the result of a natural phenomenon called isotopic fractionation, in which different isotopes (atoms with different numbers of neutrons) of mercury react to form new compounds at slightly different rates. In one type of isotopic fractionation, mass-dependent fractionation (MDF), the differing rates depend on the masses of the isotopes. In mass-independent fractionation (MIF), the behavior of the isotopes depends not on their absolute masses but on whether their masses are odd or even.
In the work described in the Nature Geoscience paper, the researchers confirmed, through sample collection and experiments, that MIF occurs during the sunlight-driven reactions in snow, resulting in a characteristic MIF fingerprint that is absent in atmospheric mercury.
"This finding allowed us to use the MIF fingerprint to estimate how much mercury was lost from the snowpack and how much remained behind, with the potential to enter Arctic ecosystems," said U-M graduate student Laura Sherman, the paper's first author. "Our experiments showed that a significant portion of mercury deposited to snow was re-emitted. Any mercury that is not re-emitted is likely to retain the unique fingerprint, so we hope future researchers will be able to use our discovery to track mercury through Arctic ecosystems."
Sherman and Blum's coauthors on the paper are former U-M graduate student Kelsey Johnson; Gerald Keeler and James Barres of the U-M Air Quality Laboratory; and Thomas A. Douglas of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.
Nancy Ross-Flanigan | EurekAlert!
Predicting unpredictability: Information theory offers new way to read ice cores
07.12.2016 | Santa Fe Institute
Sea ice hit record lows in November
07.12.2016 | University of Colorado at Boulder
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
07.12.2016 | Earth Sciences
07.12.2016 | Earth Sciences
07.12.2016 | Materials Sciences