Global biogeochemical implications of mercury discharges from rivers and sediment burial

Helen M. Amos, Daniel J. Jacob, David Kocman, Hannah M. Horowitz, Yanxu Zhang, Stephanie Dutkiewicz, Milena Horvat, Elizabeth S. Corbitt, David P. Krabbenhoft, Elsie M. Sunderland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rivers are an important source of mercury (Hg) to marine ecosystems. Based on an analysis of compiled observations, we estimate global present-day Hg discharges from rivers to ocean margins are 27 ± 13 Mmol a-1 (5500 ± 2700 Mg a-1), of which 28% reaches the open ocean and the rest is deposited to ocean margin sediments. Globally, the source of Hg to the open ocean from rivers amounts to 30% of atmospheric inputs. This is larger than previously estimated due to accounting for elevated concentrations in Asian rivers and variability in offshore transport across different types of estuaries. Riverine inputs of Hg to the North Atlantic have decreased several-fold since the 1970s while inputs to the North Pacific have increased. These trends have large effects on Hg concentrations at ocean margins but are too small in the open ocean to explain observed declines of seawater concentrations in the North Atlantic or increases in the North Pacific. Burial of Hg in ocean margin sediments represents a major sink in the global Hg biogeochemical cycle that has not been previously considered. We find that including this sink in a fully coupled global biogeochemical box model helps to balance the large anthropogenic release of Hg from commercial products recently added to global inventories. It also implies that legacy anthropogenic Hg can be removed from active environmental cycling on a faster time scale (centuries instead of millennia). Natural environmental Hg levels are lower than previously estimated, implying a relatively larger impact from human activity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9514-9522
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number16
StatePublished - Aug 19 2014
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


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