The River Runs Through It: the Athabasca River Delivers Mercury to Aquatic Birds Breeding Far Downstream [article]

Craig Hebert
2018 bioRxiv   pre-print
This study examined factors contributing to temporal variability (2009-2017) in total mercury (THg) concentrations in aquatic bird eggs collected in the Peace-Athabasca Delta and Lake Athabasca in northern Alberta. Factors examined included annual changes in oil sands production, bird diets, forest fires, and flow of the Athabasca River. Surface mining activities associated with Alberta's Athabasca oil sands are centered north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, adjacent to the northward-flowing
more » ... a River. Previous studies have found that oil sands industrial operations release mercury into the local (within ~50 km) environment. However, temporal trends in egg THg levels did not track trends in synthetic oil production from the oil sands. Intraspecific fluctuations in bird diet also could not explain annual variability in egg THg levels. Annual extent of forest fires in Alberta was only related to egg THg concentrations in California Gulls from Lake Athabasca; annual levels in other species showed no relationship with fire extent. The inclusion of more terrestrial foods in gull diets may have contributed to this difference. For the majority of species, annual fluctuations in maximal flow of the Athabasca River were important in influencing annual egg THg levels. Eggs collected following years of high flow had higher THg concentrations with distinct stable Hg isotope compositions. Riverine processes associated with suspended sediment were likely critical in regulating Hg availability to nesting birds. This study highlights the importance of the Athabasca River as a conduit for Hg transport to ecologically-sensitive downstream ecosystems such as the Peace-Athabasca Delta and Wood Buffalo National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Human activities that increase atmospheric Hg deposition to the Athabasca River watershed, or that enhance Hg releases to the river through erosion of Hg-bearing soils, will likely increase the availability of Hg to organisms inhabiting downstream areas.
doi:10.1101/440115 fatcat:6irivmvtcneo3fibtns5pdehwm