Mercury Cycling in Terrestrial Watersheds

James B. Shanley and Kevin Bishop

in Mercury in the Environment

Published by University of California Press

Published in print March 2012 | ISBN: 9780520271630
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520951396 | DOI:
Mercury Cycling in Terrestrial Watersheds

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This chapter discusses mercury cycling in the terrestrial landscape, including inputs from the atmosphere, accumulation in soils and vegetation, outputs in streamflow and volatilization, and effects of land disturbance. Mercury mobility in the terrestrial landscape is strongly controlled by organic matter. About 90% of the atmospheric mercury input is retained in vegetation and organic matter in soils, causing a buildup of legacy mercury. Some mercury is volatilized back to the atmosphere, but most export of mercury from watersheds occurs by streamflow. Stream mercury export is episodic, in association with dissolved and particulate organic carbon, as stormflow and snowmelt flush organic-rich shallow soil horizons. The terrestrial landscape is thus a major source of mercury to downstream aquatic environments, where mercury is methylated and enters the aquatic food web. With ample organic matter and sulfur, methylmercury forms in uplands as well—in wetlands, riparian zones, and other anoxic sites. Watershed features (topography, land cover type, and soil drainage class) are often more important than atmospheric mercury deposition in controlling the amount of stream mercury and methylmercury export. While reductions in atmospheric mercury deposition may rapidly benefit lakes, the terrestrial landscape will respond only over decades, because of the large stock and slow turnover of legacy mercury. We conclude with a discussion of future scenarios and the challenge of managing terrestrial mercury.

Keywords: mercury; methylmercury; methylation; watersheds; organic carbon; wetlands; stormflow; episodic export

Chapter.  18255 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Animal Pathology and Diseases

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