Researchers at Utah State University Uintah Basin’s Bingham Research Center are part of a multi-institution National Science Foundation grant focusing on the chemistry of atmospheric mercury. Seth Lyman, director and research associate professor at the Bingham Research Center, and senior research scientist Huy Tran will lead the project team, which also includes research technician Trevor O’Neil and master’s student Tyler Elgiar. This team has developed a new, accurate way to measure oxidized mercury at the extremely low levels present in the atmosphere.
The NSF-funded project began in March 2020 and will measure air quality at Storm Peak at the top of the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort in Colorado through March 2023, with a particular focus on mercury. The project sees USU Uintah Basin working with collaborators at Colorado College, University of Colorado and the University of Utah, to deploy the instruments that will measure mercury at Storm Peak and then collect the first long-term dataset. The data will allow the researchers to better understand how mercury moves through the atmosphere, how it becomes oxidized, and how mercury affects ecosystems and human health.
Mercury exists at very low levels in the atmosphere (in the range of 100 molecules of mercury per quadrillion molecules of air). Because there isn’t very much mercury in the atmosphere, it is not a direct air quality concern, however what is a concern is the tiny amounts of mercury deposited on the earth’s surface that are then taken up by organisms and become more concentrated as it moves up the food chain.
“As long as the mercury stays in the atmosphere, its impact on the environment is limited, however, when it deposits to the earth, it may lead to high mercury levels in fish, rice and other foods critical to human survival,” Lyman said.
Because mercury levels in the atmosphere are so low, it is difficult to accurately measure. However, the USU Uintah Basin researchers have developed a new way to measure oxidized mercury that is both accurate and reliable.
“Transportation of mercury occurs at the intercontinental scale,” Tran said. “That means mercury measured at Storm Peak could have originated in Asia or Europe. For that reason, we are also employing a global chemistry numerical model to help us make sense of mercury we observe at Storm Peak.”
Mercury can exist in different chemical forms and measurements of the oxidized form, which is more reactive and more readily deposited to ecosystems, have been plagued with inaccuracy and uncertainty.
“We are trying to understand what happens to mercury in the atmosphere—both physically and chemically—so we can better predict how it affects our health,” Lyman said. “Understanding how mercury behaves in the atmosphere helps governments decide how best to reduce these health risks.”
USU’s Bingham Research Center in Vernal is dedicated to energy and environmental research in Utah and around the world and specializes in the areas of air quality, energy and environmental science.