UTSI Continues Mercury Testing

Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Writer: S. W. Van Zandbergen

UTSI Continues Mercury Testing

During September of 2012, members of the Aviation Systems Program at UTSI partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to investigate the chemistry, transport, and deposition of mercury compounds in the atmosphere. The crew flew the UTSI Piper Navajo specially fitted with advanced instrumentation, sensors and data systems to collect airborne samples of mercury and other pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and ozone.

Unlike the 2011 NOAA mission, that took the team to the Gulf of Mexico, this study focused on the Tullahoma area and covered a 21 mile radius around the Tullahoma airport. Flying at various altitudes, the crew successfully logged in 33.9 hours of flight time. Ground samples were also collected during this study.

In most locations, mercury in aquatic ecosystems results from deposition from the atmosphere, whereas the mercury in the atmosphere arises from both natural and man-made sources. Once in the watershed, mercury can enter the local food chain through the consumption of contaminated fish and other aquatic organisms. Data collected provides researchers a comparison of mercury content in a non-coastal area, like Tullahoma, to the previously studied Gulf of Mexico region; an area with a persistently high total mercury in precipitation.

The results of this study will afford scientists with information to better understand what is unique about the two regions and how to address questions, such as: Are mercury concentrations high because of halogens in the marine boundary layer? What role is played by local and regional man-made mercury sources? Further, scientists can address key issues in atmospheric mercury research, including the importance of transport from the middle atmosphere to the surface; the relative contributions of natural and man-made emissions sources, and the relationship between mercury concentrations in the air and in rainfall to the prevalence of mercury in the National Estuarine Research Reserve ecosystem, which includes fish and other wildlife.

Members of the research team l-r: Xinrong Ren, NOAA Air Research Laboratory; Greg Heatherly, UTSI chief aircraft mechanic; Borja Martos, UTSI research assistant professor and pilot; Samuel Williams, UTSI graduate. Not pictured: Steve Brooks, NOAA Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division; Peter Solies, UTSI clinical associate professor, Devon Simmons, UTSI research associate and pilot; Jacob Bowman, UTSI aircraft mechanic.

UTSI Piper Navajo airborne science research aircraft during an early morning take-off.