Observed decrease in atmospheric mercury explained by global decline in anthropogenic emissions

Yanxu Zhang, Daniel J. Jacob, Hannah M. Horowitz, Long Chen, Helen M. Amos, David P. Krabbenhoft, Franz Slemr, Vincent L. St. Louis, Elsie M. Sunderland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Observations of elemental mercury (Hg0) at sites in North America and Europe show large decreases (∼1-2% y-1) from 1990 to present. Observations in background northern hemisphere air, including Mauna Loa Observatory (Hawaii) and CARIBIC (Civil Aircraft for the Regular Investigation of the atmosphere Based on an Instrument Container) aircraft flights, show weaker decreases (<1% y-1). These decreases are inconsistent with current global emission inventories indicating flat or increasing emissions over that period. However, the inventories have three major flaws: (i) they do not account for the decline in atmospheric release of Hg from commercial products; (ii) they are biased in their estimate of artisanal and small-scale gold mining emissions; and (iii) they do not properly account for the change in Hg0/HgII speciation of emissions from coal-fired utilities after implementation of emission controls targeted at SO2 and NOx. We construct an improved global emission inventory for the period 1990 to 2010 accounting for the above factors and find a 20% decrease in total Hg emissions and a 30% decrease in anthropogenic Hg0 emissions, with much larger decreases in North America and Europe offsetting the effect of increasing emissions in Asia. Implementation of our inventory in a global 3D atmospheric Hg simulation [GEOS-Chem (Goddard Earth Observing System-Chemistry)] coupled to land and ocean reservoirs reproduces the observed large-scale trends in atmospheric Hg0 concentrations and in HgII wet deposition. The large trends observed in North America and Europe reflect the phase-out of Hg from commercial products as well as the cobenefit from SO2 and NOx emission controls on coal-fired utilities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)526-531
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 19 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Atmosphere
  • Emission
  • Mercury
  • Trend

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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