Formation of mercury methylation hotspots as a consequence of forestry operations

Sci Total Environ. 2018 Feb 1;613-614:1069-1078. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.09.151. Epub 2017 Sep 22.


Earlier studies have shown that boreal forest logging can increase the concentration and export of methylmercury (MeHg) in stream runoff. Here we test whether forestry operations create soil environments of high MeHg net formation associated with distinct microbial communities. Furthermore, we test the hypothesis that Hg methylation hotspots are more prone to form after stump harvest than stem-only harvest, because of more severe soil compaction and soil disturbance. Concentrations of MeHg, percent MeHg of total Hg (THg), and bacterial community composition were determined at 200 soil sampling positions distributed across eight catchments. Each catchment was either stem-only harvested (n=3), stem- and stump-harvested (n=2) or left undisturbed (n=3). In support of our hypothesis, higher MeHg to THg ratios was observed in one of the stump-harvested catchments. While the effects of natural variation could not be ruled out, we noted that most of the highest % MeHg was observed in water-filled cavities created by stump removal or driving damage. This catchment also featured the highest bacterial diversity and highest relative abundance of bacterial families known to include Hg methylators. We propose that water-logged and disturbed soil environments associated with stump harvest can favor methylating microorganisms, which also enhance MeHg formation.

Keywords: Methylmercury; Microbial communities; Soil disturbance; Stump harvest.