EGU General Assembly 2021
© Author(s) 2021. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Broadscale evaluation of the sedimentary Hg proxy for volcanism – insights from data compilation

Joost Frieling, Isabel Fendley, and Tamsin Mather
Joost Frieling et al.
  • University of Oxford, Earth Sciences, Oxford, United Kingdom

Over the past few years, mercury (Hg) concentrations in (predominantly) marine sediments have gained widespread attention as a far-field, high-temporal resolution proxy for deep-time enhanced volcanic activity. The primary focus of these Hg studies has been a range of events in the past 500 million years; mostly larger and smaller mass extinctions and periods of high-amplitude climate change. As a result, sedimentary Hg data reinforced the notion many of these events are indeed coeval with and hypothesized causally connected to large igneous provinces (LIPs). 

However, relatively poor constraints on long-term dispersal of emissions through the marine and terrestrial biosphere, accumulation and preservation mechanisms of Hg pose difficulties for its use as a qualitative proxy for enhanced volcanic emissions. As a result, using sedimentary Hg for detailed modeling of Hg cycling or past gaseous emissions of magmatic volatiles, e.g. carbon and sulfur, and by extension environmental impact, remains speculative.

The use of Hg normalization to common Hg-binding sedimentary components such as organic carbon (TOC), Fe or Al provides a basic means of comparing relative Hg loading within a sedimentary sequence. Yet, normalizing Hg to these major sedimentary components relies on simple linear relations and this approach often leaves substantial variance. While the high Hg concentrations have usually been ascribed to variability in volcanic activity, there are likely other factors that may invoke changes in the Hg concentrations in sediments, or mask Hg emitted by volcanism such as amount or type and flux of organic matter being deposited in basins and oxygenation of water and local sediments.

To evaluate potential confounding factors, we compiled published Hg, TOC and bulk and trace element data, modern and deep-time events, periods with and without known anomalous volcanic activity and cover a range of depositional settings. We find that the depositional setting, as inferred from lithology and bulk sediment chemistry exerts a major control on the overall concentrations of Hg. Differences in Hg loading between time-correlative deposits persist after normalization to major sedimentary components, likely as a result of a complex interplay between various spatial and environmental factors. Our data compilation further allows us to explore the potential of establishing a range for background Hg values and variability through different periods of geological deep-time. Collectively, such constraints can aid the understanding of changes induced by environmental factors or volcanic emissions and inform Hg-cycling models.

How to cite: Frieling, J., Fendley, I., and Mather, T.: Broadscale evaluation of the sedimentary Hg proxy for volcanism – insights from data compilation, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-9548,, 2021.