Origin, Reactivity, and Bioavailability of Mercury in Wildfire Ash
journal contributionposted on 05.12.2018, 00:00 by Peijia Ku, Martin Tsz-Ki Tsui, Xiangping Nie, Huan Chen, Tham C. Hoang, Joel D. Blum, Randy A. Dahlgren, Alex T. Chow
Wildfires are expected to become more frequent and intensive at the global scale due to climate change. Many studies have focused on the loss of mercury (Hg) from burned forests; however, little is known about the origins, concentration, reactivity, and bioavailability of Hg in residual ash materials in postfire landscapes. We examine Hg levels and reactivity in black ash (BA, low burn intensity) and white ash (WA, high burn intensity) generated from two recent northern California wildfires and document that all ash samples contained measurable, but highly variable, Hg levels ranging from 4 to 125 ng/g dry wt. (n = 28). Stable Hg isotopic compositions measured in select ash samples suggest that most Hg in wildfire ash is derived from vegetation. Ash samples had a highly variable fraction of Hg in recalcitrant forms (0–75%), and this recalcitrant Hg pool appears to be associated with the black carbon fraction in ash. Both BA and WA were found to strongly sequester aqueous inorganic Hg but not gaseous elemental Hg under controlled conditions. During anoxic ash incubation with natural surface water, we find that Hg in most ash samples had a minimal release and low methylation potential. Thus, the formation of wildfire ash can sequester Hg into relatively nonbioavailable forms, attenuating the potentially adverse effects of Hg erosion and transport to aquatic environments along with eroded wildfire ash.