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Sulfur contamination in the Everglades, a major control on mercury methylation

December 1, 2019

In this chapter sulfur contamination of the Everglades and its role as a major control on methylmercury (MeHg) production is examined. Sulfate concentrations over large portions of the Everglades (60% of the ecosystem) are elevated or greatly elevated compared to background conditions of <1 mg/L. Land and water management practices in south Florida are the primary reason for the high levels of sulfate loading to the Everglades. Marshes in the northern Everglades that are highly enriched in sulfate have average concentrations of 60 mg/L, but water in canals in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) contain the highest concentrations of sulfate averaging 60–70 mg/L. Studies that examined the mass balance of sulfur to the Everglades have determined that the primary sources of sulfate include: sulfur currently used in agriculture, and natural and legacy agricultural sulfur released by oxidation of organic soil within the EAA. The extensive loading of sulfate to the ecosystem increases microbial sulfate reduction, the dominant microbial process driving mercury methylation and MeHg production. The biogeochemical processes linking sulfate loading and MeHg production, however, are complex. MeHg production increases as sulfate levels rise from levels <1 mg/L up to about 20 mg/L. However, production of sulfide (a byproduct of microbial sulfate reduction) starts to inhibit MeHg production above 20 mg/L. Sulfate loading to canals in the EAA has impacted the northern Everglades the most, but the Everglades canal system can transport sulfate as far as Everglades National Park (ENP), 80 km further south. Plans to deliver more water to ENP as part of restoration may increase overall sulfate loads to the southern Everglades.

Reduction of sulfate loading should be a major goal of Everglades restoration because of the many negative effects of sulfate on the ecosystem. The ecosystem has been shown to respond quickly to reductions in sulfate loading, and strategies for reducing sulfate loading may produce positive outcomes for the Everglades in the near-term. Strategies for reducing sulfate loading will need to include: best management practices for agricultural use of sulfate, approaches to minimize soil oxidation in the EAA, and modifications to stormwater treatment areas to improve sulfate retention.

Publication Year 2019
Title Sulfur contamination in the Everglades, a major control on mercury methylation
DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-32057-7_2
Authors William H. Orem, David P. Krabbenhoft, Brett Poulin, George Aiken
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 70203511
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Eastern Energy Resources Science Center