Date of Award


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science in Environmental Engineering (MS)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering


Judith A Perlinger


A mass‐balance model for Lake Superior was applied to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and mercury to determine the major routes of entry and the major mechanisms of loss from this ecosystem as well as the time required for each contaminant class to approach steady state. A two‐box model (water column, surface sediments) incorporating seasonally adjusted environmental parameters was used. Both numerical (forward Euler) and analytical solutions were employed and compared. For validation, the model was compared with current and historical concentrations and fluxes in the lake and sediments. Results for PCBs were similar to prior work showing that air‐water exchange is the most rapid input and loss process. The model indicates that mercury behaves similarly to a moderately‐chlorinated PCB, with air‐water exchange being a relatively rapid input and loss process. Modeled accumulation fluxes of PBDEs in sediments agreed with measured values reported in the literature. Wet deposition rates were about three times greater than dry particulate deposition rates for PBDEs. Gas deposition was an important process for tri‐ and tetra‐BDEs (BDEs 28 and 47), but not for higher‐brominated BDEs. Sediment burial was the dominant loss mechanism for most of the PBDE congeners while volatilization was still significant for tri‐ and tetra‐BDEs. Because volatilization is a relatively rapid loss process for both mercury and the most abundant PCBs (tri‐ through penta‐), the model predicts that similar times (from 2 ‐ 10 yr) are required for the compounds to approach steady state in the lake. The model predicts that if inputs of Hg(II) to the lake decrease in the future then concentrations of mercury in the lake will decrease at a rate similar to the historical decline in PCB concentrations following the ban on production and most uses in the U.S. In contrast, PBDEs are likely to respond more slowly if atmospheric concentrations are reduced in the future because loss by volatilization is a much slower process for PBDEs, leading to lesser overall loss rates for PBDEs in comparison to PCBs and mercury. Uncertainties in the chemical degradation rates and partitioning constants of PBDEs are the largest source of uncertainty in the modeled times to steady‐state for this class of chemicals. The modeled organic PBT loading rates are sensitive to uncertainties in scavenging efficiencies by rain and snow, dry deposition velocity, watershed runoff concentrations, and uncertainties in air‐water exchange such as the effect of atmospheric stability.