, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 233-249

Mercury Loading and Methylmercury Production and Cycling in High-Altitude Lakes from the Western United States

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Abstract

Studies worldwide have shown that mercury (Hg) is a ubiquitouscontaminant, reaching even the most remote environments such ashigh-altitude lakes via atmospheric pathways. However, very fewstudies have been conducted to assess Hg contamination levels ofthese systems. We sampled 90 mid-latitude, high-altitude lakes from seven national parks in the western United States during afour-week period in September 1999. In addition to the synoptic survey, routine monitoring and experimental studies were conducted at one of the lakes (Mills Lake) to quantify MeHg fluxrates and important process rates such as photo-demethylation. Results show that overall, high-altitude lakes have low total mercury (HgT) and methylmercury (MeHg) levels (1.07 and 0.05 ng L-1, respectively), but a very good correlation of Hg to MeHg (r2= 0.82) suggests inorganic Hg(II) loading is a primary controlling factor of MeHg levels in dilute mountain lakes. Positive correlations were also observed for dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and both Hg and MeHg, although to a much lesser degree. Levels of MeHg were similar among the seven national parks, with the exception of Glacier National Park where lowerconcentrations were observed (0.02 ng L-1), and appear to berelated to naturally elevated pH values there. Measured rates ofMeHg photo-degradation at Mills Lake were quite fast, and thisprocess was of equal importance to sedimentation and stream flowfor removing MeHg. Enhanced rates of photo-demethylation are likely an important reason why high-altitude lakes, with typically high water clarity and sunlight exposure, are low in MeHg.