Historical Deposition of Trace Metals In a Marine Sapropel From Mangrove Lake, Bermuda With Emphasis On Mercury, Lead, and Their Isotopic Composition

Document Type


Publication Date



Marine Science


Ocean Science and Engineering


Purpose: Sapropel is an organic-rich sediment formed under conditions that can result in sequestration of trace metals. Here, we determined the concentration of total mercury (Hg), lead (Pb), and 16 other metals (Al, Ba, Ca, Cd, Cr, Cs, Cu, Fe, Li, Mn, Ni, Sr, Tl, U, V, Zn) in a sapropel core from Mangrove Lake, Bermuda that dated back nearly two millennia. The purpose was to assess historical patterns of metal deposition on this geographically remote island in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Materials and methods: Two sediment cores were collected from Mangrove Lake using a modified piston corer. Cores were age-dated with a Bayesian statistical age-depth model using a multiproxy approach relying on 210Pb and radiocarbon dates. Total Hg was determined following US EPA Method 7473 using a direct mercury analyzer. Other metals were determined by sector field ICP-MS following a microwave-assisted strong-acid digestion. Stable isotope measurements of Hg and Pb were used to better track sources of these contaminants.

Results and discussion: Sapropel Hg concentrations were low (~ 50 ng g−1) from about 1000 AD to 1600 AD, followed by a slow rise in concentration until a high point of 209 ng g−1 in the early nineteenth century. Hg levels then returned to ~ 70 ng g−1, still elevated above baseline levels, before a final sharp rise in the mid-1900s to 430 ng g−1. Pb, Zn, Cu, Cr, and Ba had similar patterns, with Pb isotope ratios showing early natural fluctuations followed by the greater influence of pollution sources. Mercury stable isotope data also show the influence of anthropogenic sources during the 1800s and suggest a mix of atmospheric, terrestrial, and possibly marine-derived Hg inputs to the lake.

Conclusions: The vertical distribution of elements and isotopes reveals changes in deposition through time associated with pollution from industrialization, and, possibly, volcanic activity, seawater intrusion, intense hurricane events, and local pollution from ship and fortress building. Overall, this study demonstrates that organic-rich sapropel provides a good historical record of metal contamination, and that Bermuda, despite its remote location, had metal deposition profiles much like the records of other sediment cores from around the world.

Publication Title

Journal of Soils and Sediments

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