A Millennial-Scale Record of Mercury and Lead Contamination in Peatlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of California

Monday, 14 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
Judith Z Drexler1, Charles N Alpers1, Leonid A Neymark2, James B Paces2 and Christopher Fuller3, (1)USGS California Water Science Center Sacramento, Sacramento, CA, United States, (2)USGS, Denver, CO, United States, (3)USGS Western Regional Offices Menlo Park, Menlo Park, CA, United States
Peat cores from two micro-tidal marshes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of California (the landward end of the San Francisco Estuary) were used to track the onset of anthropogenic pollution on the west coast of the United States. Cores were sectioned into 2-cm depth intervals and analyzed for lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), and titanium (Ti) concentrations and Pb isotope compositions. Peat profiles were dated using radiocarbon, 210Pb, and 137Cs. Pre-anthropogenic concentrations of Pb and Hg in peat ranged from 0.60 to 13.0 µg g-1and from 6.9 to 71 ng g-1, respectively. For much of the past 6,000+ years, the Delta was free from anthropogenic pollution; however, beginning in ~1425 CE, Hg and Pb concentrations, Pb/Ti ratios, Pb enrichment factors (EFs), and HgEFs all increased. Pb isotope compositions of the peat suggest that this uptick was likely caused by mining and smelting activities originating in Asia. The next increases in Pb and Hg contamination occurred during the California Gold Rush (beginning ~1850 CE), when concentrations reached their highest levels (74 µg g-1 Pb, 990 ng g-1 Hg; PbEF = 12 and HgEF = 28). Pb concentrations increased again beginning in the ~1920s with the incorporation of Pb additives in gasoline. The phase-out of lead additives in the late 1980s was reflected in Pb isotope ratios and reductions in Pb concentrations in the surface layers of the peat. The rise and fall of Hg contamination was also tracked by the peat archive, with the highest Hg concentrations occurring just before 1963 CE and then decreasing during the post-1963 period. Overall the results show that the Delta was a pristine region for most of its ~6,700-year existence; however, since ~1425 CE, it has received Pb and Hg contamination from both global and regional sources. This study demonstrates that micro-tidal peatlands can be a highly useful archive for establishing the onset of anthropogenic contamination and chronicling the transition from a pristine to a polluted landscape.