Nearshore versus offshore copper loading in Lake Superior sediments: Implications for transport and cycling

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A thorough understanding of the fate and transport of metals in Lake Superior is necessary in order to predict the ability of Lake Superior to recover from anthropogenic perturbations (copper mining). Sediment cores were collected from nearshore and offshore sites in Lake Superior and used to evaluate spatial and temporal variations in copper loading associated with mining-related activities. Although both settings have been strongly affected by anthropogenic releases of copper, copper concentrations in nearshore cores are significantly greater than those found in offshore cores, implying that nearshore copper loading is dominated by simple deposition and burial of sediment generated from mining activities. Temporal variations in copper profiles in sediments from nearshore environments closely mimic copper production rates. Conversely, copper loading histories derived from offshore sediments are not well correlated to production rates. The offshore sediment cores, when compared with analogous cores from Lakes Ontario and Michigan, show that the average, lake-wide intensity of copper loading in Lake Superior is comparable to the other two lakes, despite the fact that Lake Superior has received the largest total burden of anthropogenic copper. Cu/Zn ratios, used to evaluate the amount of copper loading derived from mining discharges, vary strongly in nearshore environments in response to loading. Cu/Zn ratios in offshore sediments are much less variable, implying that copper loading may be regulated by additional mechanisms (solution chemistry and/or biologic uptake). Study of trace metal partitioning within Lake Superior sediments indicates that the organic fraction of the sediment contains the majority of the copper. Copper concentrations in offshore sediments are significantly correlated to organic carbon content of the sediment whereas copper concentrations in nearshore sediments are not. These findings support the model that transport and deposition of particles released from mining discharges dominate copper loading in nearshore sediments, whereas biologic uptake and settling of particulate organic matter may regulate copper loading in offshore sediments.

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Journal of Great Lakes Research