Responses of deposition and bioaccumulation in the Great Lakes region to policy and other large-scale drivers of mercury emissions

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Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geospatial Engineering; Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences; Department of Social Sciences


Mercury (Hg) emissions pose a global problem that requires global cooperation for a solution. However, neither emissions nor regulations are uniform world-wide, and hence the impacts of regulations are also likely to vary regionally. We report here an approach to model the effectiveness of regulations at different scales (local, regional, global) in reducing Hg deposition and fish Hg concentrations in the Laurentian Great Lakes (GL) region. The potential effects of global change on deposition are also modeled. We focus on one of the most vulnerable communities within the region, an Indigenous tribe in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP) with a high fish consumption rate. For the GL region, elements of global change (climate, biomass burning, land use) are projected to have modest impacts (<5% change from the year 2000) on Hg deposition. For this region, our estimate of the effects of elimination of anthropogenic emissions is a 70% decrease in deposition, while our minimal regulation scenario increases emissions by 35%. Existing policies have the potential to reduce deposition by 20% with most of the reduction attributable to U.S. policies. Local policies within the Great Lakes region show little effect, and global policy as embedded in the Minamata Convention is projected to decrease deposition by approximately 2.8%. Even within the GL region, effects of policy are not uniform; areas close to emission sources (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania) experience larger decreases in deposition than other areas including Michigan's UP. The UP landscape is highly sensitive to Hg deposition, with nearly 80% of lakes estimated to be impaired. Sensitivity to mercury is caused primarily by the region's abundant wetlands. None of the modeled policy scenarios are projected to reduce fish Hg concentrations to the target that would be safe for the local tribe. Regions like Michigan's UP that are highly sensitive to mercury deposition and that will see little reduction in deposition due to regulations require more aggressive policies to reduce emissions to achieve recovery. We highlight scientific uncertainties that continue to limit our ability to accurately predict fish Hg changes over time.

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Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts