A landscape-scale approach to examining the fate of atmospherically derived industrial metals in the surficial environment

Nicola Stromsoe, Samuel K. Marx, Hamish A. McGowan, Nikolaus Callow, Henk Heijnis, Atun Zawadzki

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Industrial metals are now ubiquitous within the atmosphere and their deposition represents a potential source of contamination to surficial environments. Few studies, however, have examined the environmental fate of atmospheric industrial metals within different surface environments. In this study, patterns of accumulation of atmospherically transported industrial metals were investigated within the surface environments of the Snowy Mountains, Australia. Metals, including Pb, Sb, Cr and Mo, were enriched in aerosols collected in the Snowy Mountains by 3.5-50 times pre-industrial concentrations. In sedimentary environments (soils, lakes and reservoirs) metals showed varying degrees of enrichment. Differences were attributed to the relative degree of atmospheric input, metal sensitivity to enrichment, catchment area and metal behaviour following deposition. In settings where atmospheric deposition dominated (ombrotrophic peat mires in the upper parts of catchments), metal enrichment patterns most closely resembled those in collected aerosols. However, even in these environments significant dilution (by 5-7 times) occurred. The most sensitive industrial metals (those with the lowest natural concentration; Cd, Ag, Sb and Mo) were enriched throughout the studied environments. However, in alpine tarn-lakes no other metals were enriched, due to the dilution of pollutant-metals by catchment derived sediment. In reservoirs, which were located lower within catchments, industrial metals exhibited more complex patterns. Particle reactive metals (e.g. Pb) displayed little enrichment, implying that they were retained up catchment, whereas more soluble metals (e.g., Cu and Zn) showed evidence of concentration. These same metals (Cu and Zn) were depleted in soils, implying that they are preferentially transported through catchments. Enrichment of other metals (e.g. Cd) varied between reservoirs as a function of contributing catchment area. Overall this study showed that the fate of atmospherically derived metals is complex, and depends upon metal behaviour and geomorphic processes operating at landscape scales.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)962-980
Number of pages19
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2015
Externally publishedYes


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