Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Atmospheric Mercury Has Declined -- But Why?

10.06.2003

The amount of gaseous mercury in the atmosphere has dropped sharply from its peak in the 1980s and has remained relatively constant since the mid 1990s. This welcome decline may result from control measures undertaken in western Europe and North America, but scientists who have just concluded a study of atmospheric mercury say they cannot reconcile the amounts actually found with current understanding of natural and manmade sources of the element.

An international group of scientists, led by Franz Slemr of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry [Max-Planck-Institut fuer Chemie] in Mainz, Germany, studied the worldwide trend of total gaseous mercury at six sites in the northern hemisphere, two sites in the southern hemisphere, and on eight ship transatlantic ship cruises since 1977. They have published their findings in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The fixed sites ranged from the Canadian Arctic to Antarctica. In both hemispheres, total gaseous mercury increased in the late 1970s, apparently peaked in the late 1980s, decreased to a minimum in the mid 1990s, and has remained relatively constant since then. Concentrations in the southern hemisphere are about one-third less than in the northern hemisphere. These observations accord well, the researchers say, with data on mercury deposited in peat bogs and found in ice cores.

Scientists have believed that natural processes and human activities put about equal amounts of mercury into the atmosphere. Assuming that natural emissions and re-emissions of the historically deposited mercury have remained constant, the observed reduction of about 17 percent in concentration from 1990 to 1996 would have to result from a reduction of about 34 percent in manmade emissions during that period. This, the scientists say, is three to four times larger than the 10 percent decrease in manmade emissions suggested by previous studies. Therefore, either our understanding of manmade emissions or of the ratio of natural to manmade emissions probably has to be refined, they say.

The level of atmospheric mercury is important, even though at current levels, it is not directly toxic. The problem, says Slemr, "is that some 5,000 metric tons of atmospheric mercury are currently deposited worldwide every year. The atmospheric lifetime of elemental mercury is about one year and, thus, the mercury is deposited even in remote areas."

Further, Slemr says, some of the atmospheric mercury is deposited into soil and water, where it can be "transformed to methyl mercury, one of the most toxic compounds." In ocean water, methyl mercury concentrates in plankton and further accumulates in fish, especially those high in the food chain, such as tuna. High methyl mercury levels in tuna can lead to chronic diseases in persons who eat the fish, with pregnant women most in danger.

Therefore, the researchers say, it is essential that we better understand the amount and sources of mercury in the atmosphere. The amount of mercury emitted naturally is not well understood at present. With regard to manmade emissions, coal burning definitely emits mercury, and it was recently discovered that biomass burning is another important source. Waste incineration is also a source, but not yet well quantified. Further, says Slemr, the annual re-emission of a small fraction of the 200,000 metric tons of mercury deposited into the environment since Roman times is uncertain.

Slemr and his colleagues conclude that future emission inventories must take into account the difference between atmospheric mercury levels in the northern and southern hemispheres, as well as the historic and present day emission trends. Further research will be necessary with regard to the quantitative and qualitative sources of atmospheric mercury, both natural and manmade, for any emission inventory to be credible.

The study was funded in part by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Harvey Leifert | AGU

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Six-decade-old space mystery solved with shoebox-sized satellite called a CubeSat
15.12.2017 | National Science Foundation

nachricht NSF-funded researchers find that ice sheet is dynamic and has repeatedly grown and shrunk
15.12.2017 | National Science Foundation

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: First-of-its-kind chemical oscillator offers new level of molecular control

DNA molecules that follow specific instructions could offer more precise molecular control of synthetic chemical systems, a discovery that opens the door for engineers to create molecular machines with new and complex behaviors.

Researchers have created chemical amplifiers and a chemical oscillator using a systematic method that has the potential to embed sophisticated circuit...

Im Focus: Long-lived storage of a photonic qubit for worldwide teleportation

MPQ scientists achieve long storage times for photonic quantum bits which break the lower bound for direct teleportation in a global quantum network.

Concerning the development of quantum memories for the realization of global quantum networks, scientists of the Quantum Dynamics Division led by Professor...

Im Focus: Electromagnetic water cloak eliminates drag and wake

Detailed calculations show water cloaks are feasible with today's technology

Researchers have developed a water cloaking concept based on electromagnetic forces that could eliminate an object's wake, greatly reducing its drag while...

Im Focus: Scientists channel graphene to understand filtration and ion transport into cells

Tiny pores at a cell's entryway act as miniature bouncers, letting in some electrically charged atoms--ions--but blocking others. Operating as exquisitely sensitive filters, these "ion channels" play a critical role in biological functions such as muscle contraction and the firing of brain cells.

To rapidly transport the right ions through the cell membrane, the tiny channels rely on a complex interplay between the ions and surrounding molecules,...

Im Focus: Towards data storage at the single molecule level

The miniaturization of the current technology of storage media is hindered by fundamental limits of quantum mechanics. A new approach consists in using so-called spin-crossover molecules as the smallest possible storage unit. Similar to normal hard drives, these special molecules can save information via their magnetic state. A research team from Kiel University has now managed to successfully place a new class of spin-crossover molecules onto a surface and to improve the molecule’s storage capacity. The storage density of conventional hard drives could therefore theoretically be increased by more than one hundred fold. The study has been published in the scientific journal Nano Letters.

Over the past few years, the building blocks of storage media have gotten ever smaller. But further miniaturization of the current technology is hindered by...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

See, understand and experience the work of the future

11.12.2017 | Event News

Innovative strategies to tackle parasitic worms

08.12.2017 | Event News

AKL’18: The opportunities and challenges of digitalization in the laser industry

07.12.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Engineers program tiny robots to move, think like insects

15.12.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering

One in 5 materials chemistry papers may be wrong, study suggests

15.12.2017 | Materials Sciences

New antbird species discovered in Peru by LSU ornithologists

15.12.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>