A/Professor Jenny Fisher sitting on a sofa smiling

Exploring Southern Ocean mercury cycling

Exploring Southern Ocean mercury cycling

UOW atmospheric chemist awarded a mobility grant from the Australian Academy of Science

Associate Professor Jenny Fisher from the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry has been announced as a recipient of a 2023 France and Europe Early- and Mid-Career Researchers Mobility Grant. The grant, supported by the Bede Morris Memorial Fund, is for her research project, ‘A view from the south: Exploring Southern Ocean mercury cycling and what it means for the UN Minamata Convention’.

Associate Professor Fisher, an atmospheric chemist in UOW’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences, researches how trace gases such as mercury and other pollutants are transported and distributed through the atmosphere, having a significant impact on our health, climate and environment. Her expertise in complex computer modelling and her deep understanding of biogeochemical cycling and atmospheric chemistry put her at the forefront of cutting-edge environmental science.

One of the major themes of Associate Professor Fisher’s research is evaluating the effectiveness of the UN Minamata Convention on Mercury, which entered into force globally in 2017 and was ratified in Australia in 2021. The treaty aims to reduce mercury emissions to protect human and environmental health, including in marine zones, which are particularly vulnerable to mercury contamination and are the main link between sources and human exposure.

As a toxic pollutant with severe human and environmental health impacts, mercury can come from natural sources such as volcanic eruptions. Yet the vast majority of the mercury emitted to the atmosphere today is due to human activities, with the biggest sources being the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, and the informal mining and extraction of gold. Once released into the air, mercury can cycle between the atmosphere and ecosystems for years or even decades before ending up in the oceans or land, with some of it entering the food chain and winding up on our plates as seafood.

Associate Professor Fisher said that the amount of mercury in the atmosphere today is about four times higher than before humans began to release it, beginning with mining activities as early as the 15th century. This has translated to more than doubling the amount of mercury in the ocean surface waters, where most of our seafood comes from.

“And even if we stopped all human mercury emissions now, surface ocean mercury would only decline by about half by 2100.”

In her most recent project, which has just been awarded the France and Europe EMCR Mobility Grant, Associate Professor Jenny Fisher will join forces with a team of French mercury science experts to provide a new understanding of mercury cycling in the Southern Ocean region, an area of critical importance for evaluating the Convention’s effectiveness in reducing mercury pollution.

Associate Professor Fisher said she was honoured to receive the Bede Morris Memorial Fund recognition and plans to use it to develop models of atmosphere-ocean mercury cycling that can be used to track how mercury pollution is responding to changes in emission spurred by the Convention – a goal that has become a focal point for both scientific and policy communities.

“To get the most insights, we will use a suite of computational models and observations to identify critical uncertainties in Southern Ocean mercury cycling. This region is really important because it is the only area in the Southern Hemisphere where there are measurement records that will let us test whether the policy changes are working. The measurements on their own can only tell us so much—we need accurate models to interpret them.”

In response to Associate Professor Fisher’s accomplishment, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research and Sustainable Futures) Professor David Currow extended his congratulations and well-wishes for her continued success.

“This grant is a testament to Associate Professor Fisher’s exceptional contributions to the field of atmospheric chemistry and confirms the collaborative power of science, as it brings together experts from different parts of the world to collectively address challenges that transcend geographical boundaries. I look forward to the insights this project will provide in advancing our understanding of mercury cycling and its implications for the UN Minamata Convention,” Professor Currow said.

Associate Professor Fisher previously led research using models to interpret atmospheric mercury measurements in the Arctic. Her work, originally published in Nature Geoscience in 2012, was the first to hypothesise that Arctic rivers provide a dominant source of mercury to the Arctic Ocean. Most recently, she co-authored a large review focused on understanding mercury in the Southern Hemisphere, published as a part of five-paper series in Ambio: A Journal of Environment and Society.

UOW is committed to addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which provide a shared blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for everyone. This research addresses SDG: 6 (Clean water and sanitation), SDG: 13 (Climate action) and SDG: 14 (Life below water).