Global Biogeochemical Cycling of Mercury: A Review

Posted: 4 Jun 2010

See all articles by Noelle E. Selin

Noelle E. Selin

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Date Written: November 2009


Mercury pollution poses global human health and environmental risks. Although mercury is naturally present in the environment, human activities, such as coal burning, have increased the amount of mercury cycling among the land, atmosphere, and ocean by a factor of three to five. Emitted to the atmosphere in its elemental form, mercury travels worldwide before oxidizing to a form that deposits to ecosystems. In aquatic systems, mercury can convert into methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin. People and wildlife are exposed to methylmercury as it bioaccumulates up the food chain. Mercury continues to circulate in the atmosphere, oceans, and terrestrial system for centuries to millennia before it returns to deep-ocean sediments. Areas of uncertainty in the global biogeochemical cycle of mercury include oxidation processes in the atmosphere, land-atmosphere and ocean-atmosphere cycling, and methylation processes in the ocean. National and international policies have addressed direct mercury emissions, but further efforts to reduce risks face numerous political and technical challenges.

Suggested Citation

Selin, Noelle E., Global Biogeochemical Cycling of Mercury: A Review (November 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Noelle E. Selin (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

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