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Environ Sci Technol. 2004 Jun 1;38(11):3004-10.

Snowmelt sources of methylmercury to high arctic ecosystems.

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  • 1Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, 150 Louis Pasteur, PO Box 450, Station A, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada.


Mercury in humans and other top predators living in the Arctic is present at elevated levels. Since only methylmercury (MeHg) bioaccumulates in food chains, sources of MeHg need to be identified. Recently, wetlands in the High Arctic were found to produce MeHg, and this was confirmed in laboratory soil incubations. In the present study both wetlands and snowmelt water were evaluated as sources of MeHg to Arctic ecosystems in Nunavut. Three substudies took place on Cornwallis Island, and one took place on Ellesmere Island. First, the effect of wetland presence in lake watersheds was evaluated by comparing four lakes with wetlands present to four lakes without wetlands present. Next, two individual wetlands were spatially and temporally investigated. Finally, three basin tributaries were evaluated for snowmelt MeHg sources. Catchments on Cornwallis Island with wetlands did not have an observable effect on MeHg levels in downstream lake water, but the wetland on Ellesmere Island contributed significant MeHg. In contrast, calculated yields of MeHg in tributaries draining snowmelt on Cornwallis Island were higher (ca. 1.5 mg km(-2) day(-1)) than those measured in temperate catchments characterized by wetlands. Methylmercury and total Hg concentrations in lakes, wetlands, and basin tributaries showed a strong temporal trend that corresponded to inputs from snowmelt water in late spring. This study revealed that wetland export of MeHg to downstream Arctic lakes is site dependent, and snowmelt water was the most significant source of MeHg to Arctic ecosystems located on Cornwallis Island.

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