Sulfur Contamination in the Everglades, a Major Control on Mercury Methylation

  • William H. OremEmail author
  • David P. Krabbenhoft
  • Brett A. Poulin
  • George R. Aiken


In this chapter sulfur contamination of the Everglades and its role as a major control on methylmercury (MeHg) production is examined. Sulfate concentrations over large portions of the Everglades (60% of the ecosystem) are elevated or greatly elevated compared to background conditions of <1 mg/L. Land and water management practices in south Florida are the primary reason for the high levels of sulfate loading to the Everglades. Marshes in the northern Everglades that are highly enriched in sulfate have average concentrations of 60 mg/L, but water in canals in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) contain the highest concentrations of sulfate averaging 60–70 mg/L. Studies that examined the mass balance of sulfur to the Everglades have determined that the primary sources of sulfate include: sulfur currently used in agriculture, and natural and legacy agricultural sulfur released by oxidation of organic soil within the EAA. The extensive loading of sulfate to the ecosystem increases microbial sulfate reduction, the dominant microbial process driving mercury methylation and MeHg production. The biogeochemical processes linking sulfate loading and MeHg production, however, are complex. MeHg production increases as sulfate levels rise from levels <1 mg/L up to about 20 mg/L. However, production of sulfide (a byproduct of microbial sulfate reduction) starts to inhibit MeHg production above 20 mg/L. Sulfate loading to canals in the EAA has impacted the northern Everglades the most, but the Everglades canal system can transport sulfate as far as Everglades National Park (ENP), 80 km further south. Plans to deliver more water to ENP as part of restoration may increase overall sulfate loads to the southern Everglades.

Reduction of sulfate loading should be a major goal of Everglades restoration because of the many negative effects of sulfate on the ecosystem. The ecosystem has been shown to respond quickly to reductions in sulfate loading, and strategies for reducing sulfate loading may produce positive outcomes for the Everglades in the near-term. Strategies for reducing sulfate loading will need to include: best management practices for agricultural use of sulfate, approaches to minimize soil oxidation in the EAA, and modifications to stormwater treatment areas to improve sulfate retention.


Everglades Sulfur Mercury Water quality Sulfate reduction 



Big Cypress National Preserve


Everglades Agricultural Area


Everglades National Park


Stormwater Treatment Area


Water Conservation Area



This work was supported by the USGS Priority Ecosystems Studies for South Florida Program—Nick Aumen, Program Executive. Any use of trade, firm, or product names in this report is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the USGS or the U.S. Government. All figures and tables used are original creations for this chapter. Thanks to Matthew Varonka, Anne Bates, Tiffani Schell, Cynthia Gilmour, John DeWild, and many others who contributed to the USGS Aquatic Cycling of Mercury in the Everglades (ACME) Project over the years.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • William H. Orem
    • 1
    Email author
  • David P. Krabbenhoft
    • 2
  • Brett A. Poulin
    • 3
  • George R. Aiken
    • 3
  1. 1.U.S. Geological SurveyRestonUSA
  2. 2.U.S. Geological SurveyMiddletonUSA
  3. 3.U.S. Geological SurveyBoulderUSA

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