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Using Tree Rings to Track Atmospheric Mercury Pollution in Australia: The Legacy of Mining in Tasmania

Schneider, Larissa, Allen, Kathryn, Walker, Meg, Morgan, Christine, Haberle, Simon
Environmental science & technology 2019 v.53 no.10 pp. 5697-5706
Phyllocladus, celery, copper, emissions, freshwater lakes, gold, growth rings, historical records, mercury, mining, pollution, sediments, smelters, trees, Tasmania
Historical records of mercury (Hg) deposition in lake sediments have commonly been used to monitor historic atmospheric concentrations. In the Australian environment, however, freshwater lakes are limited, restricting the region for which depositional archives of Hg can be derived. In this study we show that dendrochemistry can provide a record of atmospheric concentrations at very high resolution. We measured Hg concentrations in growth rings of two tree species from a site in western in Tasmania-Huon Pine (Lagarostrobus franklinii) and Celery Top Pine (Phyllocladus aspleniifolius). This region has been heavily mined over the past 150 years. Although much previous work has linked atmospheric Hg to gold mining, the evidence in this study suggests that copper smelters in Queenstown and Zeehan, not gold mining activities, were the main sources of Hg emissions to the atmosphere in this location. Huon Pine had significantly higher background Hg concentrations (x̅ = 5.62 ng/g) than Celery Top Pine (x̅ = 2.95 ng/g). No significant increase in Hg concentration during the peak copper smelting phase (1896 to 1935) was observed in Celery Top Pine, while a significant 1.4 fold-increase was observed in Huon Pine. Our results show that of species examined across the globe, Huon Pine is one of the most efficient bioaccumulators of Hg, making it a good proxy for tracking historical Hg emissions in western Tasmania. This ability to measure Hg in the environment is essential if Australia ratifies the Minamata Convention.