Mercury in California fog linked to ocean upwelling

From the AGU fall meeting in SFO and the University of California – Santa Cruz  comes this rather odd statement that I thought was interesting. It seems like an ecological horror story until you realize it is all natural processes involved.

Mercury in coastal fog linked to upwelling of deep ocean water

SANTA CRUZ, CA–An ongoing investigation of elevated mercury levels in coastal fog in California suggests that upwelling of deep ocean water along the coast brings mercury to the surface, where it enters the atmosphere and is absorbed by fog.

Peter Weiss-Penzias, an environmental toxicologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who leads the investigation, emphasized that the amount of mercury in fog is not a health concern. “These are parts-per-trillion levels, so when we say elevated, that’s relative to what was expected in atmospheric water,” he said. “The levels measured in rain have always been fairly low, so the results from our first measurements in fog were surprising.”

Weiss-Penzias and his team collected their first fog samples in the summer of 2011 and published their findings in a paper in Geophysical Research Letters in February 2012. The team, including researchers at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and CSU Monterey Bay, collected additional fog samples in the summer of 2012 and also analyzed water samples collected at different depths in Monterey Bay. Weiss-Penzias will present the latest findings in a talk at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on Tuesday, December 4.

Mercury is a highly toxic element that is released into the environment through a variety of human activities, including the burning of coal. In California, mercury mines in the coast ranges produced large amounts of elemental mercury for use in gold mining operations, leading to contamination of watersheds throughout the state. Bacteria in soil and sediments transform elemental mercury into methylmercury compounds that are especially toxic and readily absorbed by organisms.

Weiss-Penzias said the new results provide some clues to how methylmercury gets into coastal fog, although more research is needed to understand the processes involved. He is particularly interested in a highly volatile compound called dimethylmercury. “Dimethylmercury is more stable in the deep ocean, but we’re not quite sure how it forms or where it’s coming from,” he said. “We found elevated levels in the surface water during upwelling, and it readily evaporates from the surface into the atmosphere, where it decomposes into monomethylmercury and gets into fog droplets.”

When the fog moves onto the land, it collects on the leaves of redwood trees and other vegetation and drips onto the ground, depositing significant amounts of mercury onto the land. “We calculated that more methylmercury is deposited by fog than by rain, but the error bars are large,” Weiss-Penzias said. He is hoping to get grant funding to conduct a more comprehensive research project.

The preliminary results obtained so far have relied heavily on the efforts of undergraduate researchers working with Weiss-Penzias and Russell Flegal, professor of microbiology and environmental toxicology at UC Santa Cruz. Two of those undergraduates will be presenting posters on their work at the AGU meeting. Cruz Ortiz, who has continued working in the lab since his graduation earlier this year, has been looking at mercury concentrations in insects in coastal areas subject to fog deposition. His preliminary data indicate higher concentrations of mercury in some insects in the summer, when coastal fog is common, than in February and March. The other poster looks at mercury in sediments from Monterey Bay and is presented by Rene Paul Acosta, now a graduate student at Purdue University.

“There is so little data on this now, we’re just trying to fill in the map to improve our understanding of the cycling of mercury in the environment,” Weiss-Penzias said. “We want to know its sources and sinks and transformations.”

Methylmercury becomes increasingly concentrated in organisms higher up the food chain, and mercury levels in some predatory fish are high enough to raise health concerns. This contamination of ocean fish is the result of biological sequestering of mercury that has been accumulating in the oceans since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Similarly, the mercury that moves from ocean waters into fog is probably not fresh pollution, but the result of the historical legacy of mercury pollution from coal burning and other sources, Weiss-Penzias said.

“It is a bit of a mystery where it’s coming from, but I think what we’re seeing is a large-scale phenomenon that has to do with upwelling of deep ocean water along the coast,” he said.

[UPDATE] I trust Anthony will not object to a link to my previous discussion of mercury coming from the ocean, in the post “Mercury, the Trickster God“.  – willis

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43 thoughts on “Mercury in California fog linked to ocean upwelling

  1. Interesting. Yet it just has to assert that all that mercury is from human activity. One supposes that all the cinnabar rocks from which the mercury is mined never ever could possibly erode all on their own due to weathering over the last few million years… Sigh…

  2. Where I live in Santa Clara County, CA, the ground is naturally high in mercury. Many of the mines for the mercury used in the gold rush were around here. Places like Stevens Creek Reservoir and Lexington Reservoir are so high in natural mercury from the soil that you can’t eat fish caught there. And this isn’t old runoff from mines, either, this is just what naturally leeches out of the soil. So there is a lot of natural mercury flowing into SF Bay and probably down such rivers as the San Larenzo into Monterey Bay from the surrounding hills. Granted, a bunch was dumped into the waters during the gold mining, but a good bit still gets into the water naturally around here.

  3. The theme song for the investigation could be “Ring of Fire”, because of what is just off the coast of California.. A natural crust re-cycling plant, separating out all sorts of heavy metals, most of which just lie around the sea bottom, unlike mercury.

  4. @Crosspatch:

    http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=21522

    NO. 339 NEW ALMADEN MINE – The Indians used pigment from this cinnabar hill for paint. Mercury was mined as early as 1845. The gold discovery made mercury indispensable, and the mine, the most productive in America, became world famous. It sold for $1,700,700 in 1864.
    Location: On N-bound old Hwy 101 (P.M. 27.5) (Monterey Rd), 1/2 mi S of Ford Rd, San Jose

    NO. 339-1 NEW ALMADEN MINE – Here, along Arroyo de los Alamitos Creek, Luís Cabolla and Antonio Suñol did the first mining in California as they worked New Almaden ore in their arrastra. In constant production since 1845, the mine has produced more than a million flasks of quicksilver valued at over $50 million.
    Location: Bulmore Park, Almaden Rd and Almaden Way, New Almaden

    So I guess we can blame the Indians for using it as paint ;-) and thank the miners for carting away a ‘million flasks’ of the stuff to other places ;-)

    Really, though, the reality is that the cinnabar is on and near the surface and just erodes like every other rock. The ‘ore’ was openly exposed and had been for who knows how long. “Cinnabar hill” kind of sums it up. Pile of HgS.

    Just don’t eat the fish from downstream of that particular hill…

  5. A bit of a mystery? It has been known for ages: methanobacteria make it.

    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ba-1971-0105.ch002

    Demethylation was a real mystery for a while, to the extent that methylmercury was believed to be the end state of all mercury on the planet, but recently demethylation has also been discovered, also in methanobacteria and some other sediment bacteria.

  6. What are the chances there are a few exposed cinnabar hills under oceans? Not to mention a few exposed coal beds……

  7. Willis, very interesting post.

    And thank you for the link to your previous post on the topic. I had missed it.

    [While I appreciate the compliment, it is actually Anthony’s post. -w.]

  8. I see no evidence on reading several similar reports that the reverse isn’t true – that mercury compounds in fog end up in the ocean.

    “It is a bit of a mystery where it’s coming from, but I think what we’re seeing is a large-scale phenomenon that has to do with upwelling of deep ocean water along the coast,” he said.

    In other words, they don’t know. Upwelling of deep ocean water along the pacific coast is a popular meme recently, cited as causing increasing “ocean acidity” along parts of the Canadian coast.

  9. Crosspatch, “Stevens Creek Reservoir and Lexington Reservoir are so high in natural mercury from the soil that you can’t eat fish caught there.” That is a recent, even postmodern, development. All fish have elevated Hg levels, pan fish typically have less than one tenth the levels of top predators.

    The image of Tom Sawyer, fishing with straw-hat and cane pole, is set on the Mississippi River, but it was taken from the San Francisco Bay Area while his author worked at the San Francisco Call newspaper. I was raised in the good times, Tom Sawyer-like, playing and fishing in those very creeks and reservoirs, sliding the spillways and eating the fish. California and Santa Clara Valley are good places to be from.

    Last I looked, you can still find ‘my’ S. sempervirens towering over Hedding Street at 1548.

  10. The argument occasionally encountered is that a large part of the “natural”-sourced mercury in the atmosphere is actually recycled from human activities such as mining. Given the inference plausibly to be drawn from the maps in one of Mr. Eschenbach’s previous posts–namely, that the wet-deposition hot spot in the Mississippi Valley resulted from the atmospheric hot spots in Western Kansas and the Southwest–I feel entitled to question such a proposition.

    Still, I’m not yet sure I’ve given the argument a fair shake. Does anyone know any support for the contention that the mercury ostensibly originating from deserts and prairies was actually deposited there originally as a result of human activity?

  11. No, it’s the fruits and nuts. The water is fine.

    If I recall correctly, the water of the South Bay has occasionally been deemed healthy, due in some part to tertiary wastewater treatment – pouring drinking water into the Bay today, for breakfast in San Francisco.

  12. “Similarly, the mercury that moves from ocean waters into fog is probably not fresh pollution, but the result of the historical legacy of mercury pollution from coal burning and other sources,” Weiss-Penzias said.
    He may be aware that volcanic vents on the ocean floor have been spewing mercury into the ocean as long as there has been an ocean,
    geology.geoscienceworld.org/content/27/10/931.abstract
    but you cannot garner more funding nowadays without ringing your loudest alarm, and in this case that would be the “It’s all Man’s fault!” alarm. Hence he added the weasel-word “probably” when the ‘historical legacy’ from 200 years burning coal and 2000 years of alchemy is insignificant against 2,000,000,000 years of volcanic venting directly into the oceans.

  13. What isn’t a mystery is that bio-accumulation of certain compounds and elements higher up the food chain is a process that has been continuously operating since the year dot. Like the Third Law of Thermodynamics, it’s one of those inevitable consequences of life: There is no way out of the game.

    If human life expectancy was five hundred years then I’m sure it would be a much more serious problem, and people would probably still be pursuing research to vilify mercury or some other element from the periodic table. Yes, it is measurably toxic at certain levels, but poor old Mercury gets a bum-rap whatever happens. Whether it’s in coal, fish, sea-water, dental-fillings, thermometers, or “green” light bulbs.

    I question the commitment to science of people (undergraduate, or further up the food chain) who press every alarmist button in sight to promote their own “research” at the general expense of human understanding and the public resources that might have been better spent elsewhere.

  14. So oceanic origin Mercury is to California as lead piping was to the Roman Empire. Now we know the source of insanity for Democrats in California.

  15. We all know or should know about the various natural sources of Mercury. Some get spread around by people and their activities some gets spread round by mom nature. I as curious just what this concentrations of Hg is in the fog and of soil enhanced by fog concentration? That is: %, ppm,ppb,ppt or what?

  16. Weiss-Penzias and his team collected their first fog samples in the summer of 2011 and published their findings in a paper in Geophysical Research Letters in February 2012.

    I trust that they’ve archived those fog samples.

  17. The California coastal range is filled with cinnabar. Clear lake has very high Mg levels which have absolutely nothing to do with gold miners despite the enviro-wacko propaganda, but everything to do with vulcanism.

  18. BTW, I just got through reading Larry Niven’s “For a Foggy Night Out” … “I never left.”

  19. Last sentence of 7th paragraph
    “He is hoping to get grant funding to conduct a more comprehensive research project.”

    If he would have concluded already that it was natural what chance of the above will he have?

    It would appear that the exact sciences are morphing more and more into inexact sciences, like economy and other behavioral “science”. (More my line of work and that is probably why I see it this way).
    Just about everything researched needs a human finger print to be eligible for continued funding. It is a bit like media’s mantra ” we only report what people want to read/hear about”. If there is no human drama in it the funds dry up, i.e. people won’t buy the papers/watch tv as facts matter less then drama which in turn would dry up the advertising revenue (funding).

    If there is no human link to the findings, i.e. all natural, the job is finished. Just like with the media we can’t have that, can we.

  20. dscott says:
    December 5, 2012 at 7:29 am

    So oceanic origin Mercury is to California as lead piping was to the Roman Empire. Now we know the source of insanity for Democrats in California.
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Oh, gee

    Now if I could only get my husband to write an article for the National Enquirer

    MAD HATTERS DISEASE STRIKES CALIFORNIA!

    I suggested it but he keeps saying No no no…

  21. Considering that back in the 1950s you could pan the sands of any major northern and central California stream that exited the gold country and pick up drops of Hg, and considering the literal tons upon tons of Hg that were washed into streams as part of the process of capturing alluvial gold in sluice boxes, AND considering that cinnabar (HgS) is a commonish mineral in the Coast Ranges (major mercury mines along Hwy 20 for instance) and weathers naturally out of the Pacific-facing slopes and off into the Pacific, it would be odd if there weren’t “elevated” levels all along the coast from well north in Oregon – alluvial gold was mined along Oregon coastal streams and beaches – southward. The elemental vapor is hazardous at levels in the micrograms per cubic meter – so, if my arithmetic is correct – anywhere from one to two orders of magnitude greater than the levels reported in the paper.

  22. This explains a lot about California’s Blue Counties.

    “Keypone poisoning, Minamata … ” – Jello Biafra.

  23. E.M.Smith says:
    December 5, 2012 at 12:05 am

    “So I guess we can blame the Indians for using it as paint ;-) and thank the miners for carting away a ‘million flasks’ of the stuff to other places ;-)
    Really, though, the reality is that the cinnabar is on and near the surface and just erodes like every other rock. The ‘ore’ was openly exposed and had been for who knows how long. “Cinnabar hill” kind of sums it up. Pile of HgS.
    Just don’t eat the fish from downstream of that particular hill…”

    Unfortunately, some of the mercury is returned to the sea via irresponsible smelters, e.g.Teck Cominco of Trails B.C. located on the Columbia River.

    http://northportproject.com/2010/11/13/timeline-of-tecks-pollution-spills/

    It seems a bit strange how the environazi groupies pick and unpick their battle grounds. No sensationalism to attract funding equates to not doing battle which reveals their true hypocrisy. There is of course an over abundance of examples which some have shown up here at WUWT.

  24. Show me a scientist who when asked about his study mentions the words “error bars” without being asked about them…well that’s someone I pay attention to.

  25. Appalling is the ignorance of some of the (younger?) researchers, especially this quote:

    “This contamination of ocean fish is the result of biological sequestering of mercury that has been accumulating in the oceans since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Similarly, the mercury that moves from ocean waters into fog is probably not fresh pollution, but the result of the historical legacy of mercury pollution from coal burning and other sources, Weiss-Penzias said.”

    Don’t they know that volcanos above ground (about 30% of earth’s surface) emit several hundred tons per year of mercury?

    And that volcanic rifts and undersea volcanos also emit several hundred tons per year of mercury? Both these natural sources have been depositing mercury in the oceans for hundreds of millions of years. How can it be a surprise that upwelling waters contain mercury from undersea volcanic activities?

    How did California get so much mercury for gold mining? Answer: over geologic time, as the Pacific plate has been subducted under the North American plate (plate tectonics), what had been seafloor on the Pacific plate, with mercury rich deposits, was deposited on the North American plate and over time became part of the CA landmass.

    It is frightening that students don’t seem to know that mercury will always be in oceans, that human emissions are a very small part of the total, and that these natural emissions contaminate fish. Here is a link to a 1999 New Scientist article on this issue:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg16422071.600-naturally-toxic.html

  26. Don Worley wrote:
    No, but my doctor doesn’t prescribe chemotherapy for a cold either.

    Medical practice uses rigorous testing.

    Climate models fail to diagnose anything, and would be rejected by the AMA as a diagnostic tool.

    Furthermore, climatologists do not have the credentials to engage in politics or economics, and yet they continue to try.

    The field of medicine is filled with just as much baloney as climate science. I trust a doctor to set a broken arm or sew up a gash but the majority of doctors or researchers don’t have a clue when it comes to chronic conditions such diabetes, cancer, arthritis, heart disease and other such diseases. That’s because they tend to fix symptoms with a lifelong regimen of drugs; they’re not interested in looking for an actual cure or god forbid, preventative measures. The money is made by keeping people just well enough to function (and buy drugs and surgeries), there’s no money to be made at all by curing people. Cui bono – “Who benefits” is always something you should ask yourself.

    Climate science and heart disease/obesity research are so similar in nature I’m surprised so few people talk about it.

  27. “Similarly, the mercury that moves from ocean waters into fog is probably not fresh pollution, but the result of the historical legacy of mercury pollution from coal burning and other sources, Weiss-Penzias said.”

    So tired of reading that any elevation in mercury has to be from anthropogenic causes. This article (http://economicgeology.org/content/100/6/1151.abstract) describes dredge samples from offshore California with elevated Hg contents formed by hydrothermal activity. Therefore naturally occurring elevated Hg fluids at base ocean offshore California, transferred by natural upwelling to ocean surface, transferred by natural fog to land. Seem to be missing the sticky little fingers of Man in this Hg cycle.

  28. Many places have natural deposits of mercury in high enough concentrations that pure mercury leaches out. Central western Idaho is such a place. One of the highest production mercury mines was near Weiser, ID. One can dig around in any stream and creek in the mountains around here and find small amounts of pure mercury.

    Then there’s the absolute insanity that happens when a mercury thermometer gets broken in a school science classroom. Entire schools closed, hazmat crews, removing and replacing flooring with all the old floor treated as if it’s high level nuclear waste.

    Oregon and some other states have banned thermostats with mercury tilt switches because they could be a danger to children. Has there ever been a case of a child taking a thermostat apart, breaking open the switch and ingesting the mercury?

    That’s as nuts as lead paint removal. Back when Bob Vila was on This Old House they did a series on rennovating a row house. The lead paint removal guy said the paint had to be removed 12″ back from baseboard corners, 6″ on window trim and door jambs and 6′ up on those. Why? Because that’s what’s considered a “mouthable surface”.

    If your toddler can open his mouth a foot wide and is knawing on a door jamb six feet above the floor, I think you need to call an exorcist, not a hazmat crew.

  29. Apart from the, blame humans bit, very interesting .We have been able to accurately measure methyl mercury in parts per trillion for how long? This is a window into its probable source or one of them. And just like the hole in the ozone, the first suspect was our life-style.
    I have wondered for years about how arctic lakes could be contaminated by human emissions when the wind patterns are counter to the claimed sources. But very logical for an ocean source.

  30. “…
    Peter Weiss-Penzias, an environmental toxicologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who leads the investigation, emphasized that the amount of mercury in fog is not a health concern. “These are parts-per-trillion levels, so when we say elevated, that’s relative to what was expected in atmospheric water… ”
    [+emphasis]

    If Hg at these levels is not a health concern, why are more grants needed for further study? [rhetorical]

  31. RoHa:

    At December 5, 2012 at 8:11 pm you write in total

    “It seems like an ecological horror story until you realize it is all natural processes involved.”

    You think natural processes can’t be horrific? Watch “Monster Bug Wars”. It will give you nightmares.
    http://www.sbs.com.au/documentary/program/1065

    Chalk and cheese.

    This discussion is not about bugs. And it is not about, diseases, floods, earthquakes, or the countless other natural effects which can kill, maim and destroy. This discussion is about a completely trivial and harmless amount of mercury in fog.

    If your post is the best you can do to scaremonger then I suggest you don’t bother: it merely makes alarmists look stupid. (“Look” stupid? Oh, wait …)

    Richard

  32. Yes, this appears to be a particular instance of the general ocean-dominated patterns highlighted in the superb “Trickster” post.

  33. Interesting post and discussion. The measurement of mercury deposition from natural sources and trousering it as anthropogenic pollution is a truly pathetic and disgusting practice by the EPA and the green movement. Do political power and moral integrity have to be inversely related?

  34. BTW if atmospheric Hg is a marker of ocean upwelling this could make it a useful oceanographic indicator. Magnitude of upwelling is a significant climate parameter, increased upwelling is likely to lead to climate cooling since deep water is colder than surface water in most of the ocean. La Nina ENSO episodes are associated with increased east Pacific upwelling.

  35. @ richardscourtney

    Scaremongering? I’m just pointing out that the quoted sentence suggested that natural processes cannot be horrific.

    If I wanted to scaremonger (mong scares?) I would point out that leprous ghosts are far more of a threat in California fog.

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