New DRI project aimed at understanding Mercury dynamics in the Arctic tundra

December 20th, 2013
A new collaborative research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and led by Daniel Obrist at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) will attempt to characterize the complex dynamics of mercury in some of the Earth's northernmost and most fragile ecosystems.

Mercury is a neurotoxic element found naturally in the environment, but human activities such as fossil fuel combustion, mining, smelting and waste combustion have increased global atmospheric mercury pollution by a factor of three to five over the last 150 years. That increased pollution can then be transported thousands of miles through the atmosphere to fragile ecosystems in the Arctic.

"Mercury is one of the most fascinating elements, because it has very complex cycling between the atmosphere, soil, snow, and plants," said Obrist. "The reason for this is that mercury is semi-volatile so that atmospheric deposition is subject to re-emission back to the atmosphere. So the degree of this re-emission can ultimately determine the exposure of ecosystems to atmospheric mercury pollution."

Funded by the NSF Arctic Natural Sciences Program, Obrist and his colleague Detlev Helmig, from the Institute for Alpine and Arctic Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, will assess the theory that, in the Arctic, extended periods exist when mercury deposition to tundra ecosystems is enhanced.

This enhancement may be due to a chemical conversion of gaseous mercury, which can be easily re-emitted to the atmosphere, to forms that like to remain in the snow. Then when the snow melts this additional mercury retained by the snow gets transferred into aquatic ecosystems, where it may more easily accumulate in fish and wildlife. In this four-year study, Obrist and Helmig will measure mercury in the atmosphere, in snowpack, and in underlying tundra soil, to track how mercury moves in the tundra.

"An important aspect of our study," Obrist said, "is that we also study the role of soils. This is highly relevant since Tundra soils are undergoing fast changes, experiencing longer thawing periods and loss of permafrost."

While laboratory work and project planning will take place both in Reno, Nev. and in Boulder, Colo., intensive field campaigns will be done at Toolik Field Station in Alaska, which is operated and managed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks with support from the Office of Polar Programs Division of Arctic Sciences at NSF.

Obrist said the project will directly involve high school, undergraduate, and graduate students from both Nevada and Colorado.

"We're hoping to also expand an existing partnership with local high school chemistry classes through research presentations in classrooms, laboratory tours, and data analysis," he added, "and hopefully bringing up students and teachers with us to the research station in Alaska."

More information:
http://www.dri.edu/daniel-obrist

Provided by Desert Research Institute

This Phys.org Science News Wire page contains a press release issued by an organization mentioned above and is provided to you “as is” with little or no review from Phys.Org staff.

More news stories

Information engine operates with nearly perfect efficiency

Physicists have experimentally demonstrated an information engine—a device that converts information into work—with an efficiency that exceeds the conventional second law of thermodynamics. Instead, the engine's efficiency ...

New research challenges existing models of black holes

Chris Packham, associate professor of physics and astronomy at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), has collaborated on a new study that expands the scientific community's understanding of black holes in our galaxy ...

Team takes a deep look at memristors

In the race to build a computer that mimics the massive computational power of the human brain, researchers are increasingly turning to memristors, which can vary their electrical resistance based on the memory of past activity. ...

Fast computer control for molecular machines

Scientists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed a novel electric propulsion technology for nanorobots. It allows molecular machines to move a hundred thousand times faster than with the biochemical processes ...