Articles | Volume 8, issue 9
Research article
09 Sep 2011
Research article |  | 09 Sep 2011

Fate of mercury in tree litter during decomposition

A. K. Pokharel and D. Obrist

Abstract. We performed a controlled laboratory litter incubation study to assess changes in dry mass, carbon (C) mass and concentration, mercury (Hg) mass and concentration, and stoichiometric relations between elements during decomposition. Twenty-five surface litter samples each, collected from four forest stands, were placed in incubation jars open to the atmosphere, and were harvested sequentially at 0, 3, 6, 12, and 18 months. Using a mass balance approach, we observed significant mass losses of Hg during decomposition (5 to 23 % of initial mass after 18 months), which we attribute to gaseous losses of Hg to the atmosphere through a gas-permeable filter covering incubation jars. Percentage mass losses of Hg generally were less than observed dry mass and C mass losses (48 to 63 % Hg loss per unit dry mass loss), although one litter type showed similar losses. A field control study using the same litter types exposed at the original collection locations for one year showed that field litter samples were enriched in Hg concentrations by 8 to 64 % compared to samples incubated for the same time period in the laboratory, indicating strong additional sorption of Hg in the field likely from atmospheric deposition. Solubility of Hg, assessed by exposure of litter to water upon harvest, was very low (<0.22 ng Hg g−1 dry mass) and decreased with increasing stage of decomposition for all litter types. Our results indicate potentially large gaseous emissions, or re-emissions, of Hg originally associated with plant litter upon decomposition. Results also suggest that Hg accumulation in litter and surface layers in the field is driven mainly by additional sorption of Hg, with minor contributions from "internal" accumulation due to preferential loss of C over Hg. Litter types showed highly species-specific differences in Hg levels during decomposition suggesting that emissions, retention, and sorption of Hg are dependent on litter type.

Final-revised paper