W. Charles Kerfoot, Michigan Tech professor in biological sciences and and director of the Lake Superior Ecosystem Research Center at Michigan Tech, is pictured here in his laboratory. (Photo courtesy Michigan Tech University)
[Editor's Note: The Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District reports that W. Charles Kerfoot, Michigan Tech professor in biological sciences, will be one of the featured speakers at an informational meeting on environmental issues surrounding Torch Lake from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 23, in the Lake Linden-Hubbell High School Auditorium. (The meeting was originally scheduled for March 16 but was postponed due to inclement weather.)* We are publishing here, with permission, this recent Michigan Tech News article on the mercury research by Kerfoot and his team.]
By Allison Mills, Michigan Tech Science and Technology Writer
Posted March 17, 2016, on Michigan Tech News
Reprinted with permission.
The northern Great Lakes are praised for being clean, but these aquatic systems don’t exist in a vacuum. Contaminants still find their way into lake water and sediments. Mercury is of particular interest because of its toxicity and persistence.
In a new study published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research in February, an interdisciplinary team from Michigan Technological University examined the legacy of mercury in Lake Superior.
Currently, the National Atmospheric Deposition Program reports low levels of mercury deposition across most of the upper Midwest. However, those figures don’t account for past mercury deposition and what that might mean for heavy metal contamination. In fact, when mining was booming around the lake in Michigan, Minnesota and Canada in the 1800s and 1900s, the researchers found mercury input was higher than expected.
"We document that the mining effort was discharging mercury at 1,000 times the normal deposition rate in the region," says W. Charles Kerfoot, a professor of biology and director of the Lake Superior Ecosystem Research Center at Michigan Tech. "We set out to quantify this deposition -- and it was a real wake-up call."
Kerfoot collaborated with Noel Urban, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Water and Society at Michigan Tech. Together they dug into mine tailings buried at the bottom of local waterways near the Michigan Tech campus to start piecing together the region’s mercurial history.
Booms and busts rocked not just the area’s economy, but also heavy metal fluxes. Naturally, some metals -- including mercury -- make their way into water bodies. Mining speeds up that process; and the more mining, smelting and processing taking place, then the more heavy metals get deposited. In the Keweenaw Waterway and Torch Lake, lakebed sediments record these mercury-rich layers in lighter bands.
"That’s normally difficult to do," Urban explains. "But here, we can show that the amount of mercury in the environment due to local activities is huge compared to the amount coming from other sources like regional coal power plants."
During an educational boat ride on Torch Lake aboard Michigan Tech's Agassiz research vessel on July 4, 2014, Michigan Tech Professor Noel Urban displays samples of contaminated sediments from Torch Lake. He explained to visitors how fish in Torch Lake are contaminated with both PCBs and mercury. Behind him are historic photos of the early mining activities around Torch Lake. (Keweenaw Now file photo)**
Urban, Kerfoot and their team gathered dozens of 5-centimeter diameter core samples by boat, then lugged them back to the lab for analysis. That’s where Kerfoot and Urban uncovered some of the "lingering effects" from mercury deposits.
Mercury as an inorganic metal is not as toxic as its organic form, methyl mercury, which is formed by bacteria. The organic form is bioavailable -- meaning it is readily taken up and stored in organisms -- and tends to accumulate up the food chain. A little plankton feeds an invertebrate that feeds a fish and then another fish. By the time a person eats that fish, the methyl mercury has accumulated every smidge from every plankton and fish into a sizable dose of heavy metals. Because of bioaccumulation, there are guidelines on how much fish is safe to consume.
During the July 30, 2015, Geotour on copper mining waste of Lake Superior, aboard Michigan Tech's Agassiz research vessel near the Gay stamp sands, Professor Charles Kerfoot speaks about copper and mercury contamination. The educational Geotour was one of a series led by Bill Rose, Michigan Tech professor emeritus in geology. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)
Understanding the quantity and timing of the initial inorganic deposition is then crucial for understanding how much methylation occurs and how much methyl mercury is hanging out in the ecosystem.
"For each core, you need to know the concentration of the total inorganic mercury, and then you need to know how much time it took to be deposited," Kerfoot says. Once that data is compiled, it’s compared to a similar set of data for methyl mercury. In this case, as the team writes in their paper, the results "reveal that methylation occurred at the time of mining operations and shortly afterwards, with an apparent time lag of 20 to 40 years."
The question remains why the lag is there and there are several possible explanations. The delay could be from the time it takes the watershed to move mercury back into surface waters. Following clear cutting and other landscape-scale changes, forest and wetland regrowth could have played a part in remobilizing mercury. On a smaller scale, the microbes living in sediments needed time to recover from copper toxicity before being abundant enough to methylate mercury.
To better understand the time lag, and connect local activities to regional impacts, the next step of the research is to scale up. Kerfoot points out that the research in the Keweenaw gives researchers a baseline to start comparing additional sites around the lake.
The work can also affect how remediation is done with mercury contamination. At the very least, knowing how much mercury is present in the environment changes the conversation about how to deal with heavy metal contaminants in the Lake Superior region.
* Click here for more information on the Torch Lake informational meeting to be held Wednesday, March 23.
** To see videos and photos of Noel Urban's Torch Lake presentation on the Agassiz, see our May 11, 2015, article.