Naturally Elevated Monomethylmercury and Mercury Concentrations of Redwood Trees of Coastal California

Thursday, 18 December 2014
James J Rytuba, USGS, Menlo Park, CA, United States
Redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) of coastal California acquire up to a third of their annual water through direct foliar uptake from summer coastal fog. Coastal fog contains elevated concentrations of monomethylmercury (MMeHg) up to 9.8 ng/L (Weiss-Penzias et al., Geophys Res Letters, 39). MMeHg introduced by fog is concentrated in old growth redwood trees throughout their distribution along the California coast. High concentrations of MMeHg occur in living redwood needles (0.20 to 3.76 ng/g dry weight basis, dwb) and are about 2 orders of magnitude greater than typical in evergreen needles that do not receive coastal fog water. MMeHg concentration in living redwood needles changes seasonally reaching a maximum at the end of the fog season (October) and a minimum at the beginning of the fog season (March). Hg concentrations in living redwood needles range from 21.7 to 80.5 ng/g (dwb), comparable to reported values for evergreen needles from non-coastal trees. Redwoods planted in the suburban landscape inland from the coastal fog belt have considerably lower MMeHg concentrations (<0.20 ng/g) but similar Hg concentrations to redwoods in their natural coastal environment. Redwood needles die after 3 years and contain comparable concentrations of MMeHg to those in living needles from the same old growth redwoods but Hg concentrations are much higher (up to 142 ng/g) since Hg accumulates throughout the life of the needle. Stream waters in old growth redwood forests under low and high flow conditions have very low concentrations of MMeHg (<.02 ng/L). However, under high flow conditions Hg concentrations are elevated, up to 22 ng/L, compared to low flow conditions (1.3-3.15 ng/L) and in rainwater (5.4 ng/L). MMeHg concentrations in stream waters are not elevated because MMeHg is retained in redwood needles. Hg concentrations in high flow stream waters are elevated because soils developed under old growth redwoods have elevated concentrations of Hg, up to 280 ng/g (3 times background), resulting from decomposition of litter and transformation of MMeHg to Hg-humic acid complexes (79-91%), and HgS and Hgo (8-20%) as indicated by sequential selective chemical extractions. Because of the high biomass density and annual litter fall, 850 g of Hg and 23 g of MMeHg per ha are added to the redwood ecosystem over a 2000 year life span.