2015 International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant

Last month I had the opportunity to participate in the 12th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant on Jeju Island in South Korea. The biennial conference brings together scientists, medical professionals, industry leaders, and policy makers who share a common intent of protecting human health and the environment from mercury pollution. I spent one week discussing data with other oceanographers from Europe and the United States, learning about the human health impacts of mercury from fish consumption and mining activities, and branching out into new territory to prepare for my work this summer in the Arctic Ocean. I presented data from the 2013 GEOTRACES Pacific cruise described in this blog, and from a collaborative project that measured fluxes of mercury from rivers and estuaries flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.


Gala dinner on Jeju Island at the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant

This year was the first mercury conference since the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) established the Minamata Convention in 2013. The convention is a global treaty signed by 128 countries (including the United States) to reduce the production, use, and emissions of mercury. Members from the UNEP were present to discuss their goals and current challenges. Mercury pollution can traverse the world through riverine discharge, ocean currents, and global air circulation – one nation’s effort to reduce emissions can easily be negated by increased emissions from another country. This type of global effort is necessary to make real progress in reducing the amount of anthropogenic mercury in the environment. The backbone of this convention is decades of scientific research and its successful implementation is a great example of what can happen when science and policy work together.

And then there was MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome)…an outbreak that has been spreading through South Korea. The illness has claimed 27 lives in the past month inducing some panic in regards to traveling through the country. On the fourth day of the conference the Korean government released a statement explaining that a MERS patient had recently visited Jeju island and stayed at a hotel were many conference attendees were residing. The illness only seems to be spreading through hospitals where infected patients were treated and the World Health Organization had not issued any travel bans. At the airports passengers wearing paper masks were pulled aside and checked for MERS symptoms (high fever), many flights through China were canceled, and the population of tourists on the island was noticeable scarce. But despite these concerns, we all had a productive and enjoyable week on the island. Korea is a beautiful country with the friendliest people and I can’t wait to go back!


Exploring Jeju Island with friends from the University of Connecticut and Dartmouth.

Korea travel photo gallery:

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First stop, Seattle

Last week researchers participating in the upcoming Arctic GEOTRACES cruise gathered in Seattle, Washington to meet the Healy Icebreaker at its home port. Scientists had the opportunity to load gear and set up labs on the ship – I was out of the country for a conference but the rest of team Hg got the job done! We will meet the Healy in Dutch Harbor, Alaska to set sail on August 9th – adventure time is fast approaching and I’m getting excited.

Check out the following radio news clips from Alaska with my friend Dr. Anna Aguilar-Islas and from Seattle with Chief Scientist Dr. David Kadko.

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U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy – this massive ship is 120 ft longer than a football field (Photo by Alison Agather)


View of Seattle and Mt. Rainier from the ship (Photo by Carl Lamborg)




Happy World Oceans Day!!


Stellwagon Bank Marine Sanctuary (North Atlantic), April 2015. Humpback whales can consume up to 3000 lbs of food each day. Here a humpback whales uses its tail to smack the water and stun a group of fish below; the whale then dives down and swoops back up with an open mouth devouring its catch.

Today is World Oceans Day!! The Consortium for Ocean Leadership is hosting a twitter event to celebrate from 1-5 PM (eastern time) – tweet any question about the ocean with #MyOceanQ. I’ll be volunteering with a group of oceanographers to answer as many questions as we can! Check out this link for ideas on ways to celebrate :)


Clean, pack, ship!


Bottles are prepared for mercury sampling in a Class 100 Clean Laboratory which offers a particle-free environment. In the final cleaning step, bottles are rinsed with ultra-high purity water (MilliQ) and sealed inside two plastic bags to prevent contamination during transport and handling.

See that little calendar in the right panel?!? Time is flying by and in just two months we will begin our expedition into the Arctic Ocean. I’ve been busy preparing everything we’ll need to analyze mercury in the ocean over a two month research cruise – this includes packing scientific gear and instruments, calculating and ordering all of the chemicals and compressed gases we will need in the lab, and most importantly assuring that all of our supplies and regents are free of contamination.

Team mercury will use 500 sample bottles made of glass and different types of plastic during the Arctic expedition. Many of these bottles will be re-used as samples are analyzed at sea, and some will be shipped home in coolers for later analysis. Bottle cleaning is one of the most important steps when analyzing trace amounts of mercury in seawater. The bottles are soaked for 12-18 days in strong detergent and different acids to remove organic and metal contamination from the manufacturing process. Cleaning with acid not only removes contamination, it also saturates sorption sites and prevents mercury in the sample from sticking to the bottle walls.

Our gear now sits on wooden pallets in a giant warehouse, awaiting a few more supply orders and any last minute additions. Next week the pallets will be shipped to Seattle, Washington where we’ll catch the ship (U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy) at home port to load gear and start setting up labs. The science crew will fly home from Seattle and meet the ship again in August at a port in Dutch Harbor, Alaska to begin our journey.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride

This summer’s Arctic expedition will be my 7th research cruise and throughout my career as an oceanographer I have worked hard to earn my “sea legs.” During my first research cruise I shamelessly tossed my cookies into the North Atlantic Ocean, but year by year my body learned to adjust to life at sea and I now revel in big crashing waves that sweep the deck with torrents of water. As much as I love the thrill of riding roller coaster waves on a research vessel, it adds an extra challenge to deck operations and lab work; calm seas give way to calm science.

I have been told that cruising on an ice-breaker feels like an earthquake, a slow crawl through the ice protected from waves but bumpy to say the least. This year with a record-low ice minimum we may encounter more open-water than anticipated during the onset of our journey in the Chukchi Sea. Wave height is determined by wind speed and duration, and fetch, or the distance of open water where wind blows in a single direction. Less ice in the Arctic Ocean increases fetch creating bigger waves. In 2012 researchers measured a 25 ft wave in the Beaufort Sea, not far from our cruise track.

Ice in the Arctic Ocean is disappearing faster than climate models predicted and scientists have long puzzled over the missing link. Researchers from the Marginal Ice Zone Program are now investigating wave action as source of ice-loss. A special fleet of ocean robots has been deployed in the Arctic Ocean to study the impact of wave energy. These robots glide through surface water and under ice collecting data that is later transmitted to scientist via satellite. Researchers are still analyzing the impact of waves on Arctic sea ice – ice could simply scatter wave energy having little influence, or absorb wave energy moving and breaking apart the ice. If wave energy does break apart ice, this positive feedback loop (more open water → bigger waves → less ice) could be the missing link for Arctic sea-ice disappearance.


Atlantic Ocean 2009, an example of the “roller coaster” waves I’ve come to love. Here we were collecting sediments with a box corer…unsuccessfully on this particular day. Our gear was damaged in the weather and shortly after I took this shot all deck operations were suspended.