Hydrological spreading of metal pollution and wetlands as nature-based solutions

Abstract: The quality of the Earth’s water resources have deteriorated due to human impacts. A key scientific challenge is to understand, quantify and predict the water-borne spreading of pollutants at relevant scales for freshwater management and water quality restoration programs. However, understanding the natural processes controlling large-scale hydrological transport of pollutants may be masked by river regulation schemes (in the form of dams and reservoirs), which are common in many large rivers. The main objective of this thesis is to increase the current knowledge regarding large-scale spreading of metals in hydrological systems. This objective is addressed through studying net impacts of mining (a main contributor to global metal pollution) on the spreading of metals in water systems and through investigating the mitigation opportunities of wetlands across the landscape. The main study region of this thesis is the Lake Baikal basin of Russia and Mongolia, which includes the large unregulated Selenga River and its delta-wetland areas. In addition, a set of global wetland sites are also studied. A multi-method approach is used in the four studies of this thesis. The methods include field-measurements, data synthesis, metal mass flow and water flow-path quantifications, as well as geochemical modelling. Results show that mining in the upstream part of the Lake Baikal basin is a significant contributor to riverine mass flows of several metals. The mass flows increased by an order of magnitude over the mining site. The observed speciation between dissolved (more bioavailable) and suspended (less bioavailable) phases could be well predicted for some metals (Fe, V, Pb and Zn) using a geochemical equilibrium model. However, the model failed to reproduce the speciation of other metals (Cr, Cu, Mn and Mo). In these cases, non-equilibrium processes may need to be considered, and adsorption databases may need to be developed, in order to make dependable predictions. Results also suggest that the concentration of dissolved organic carbon, which exhibits seasonal variability and long-term increasing trends due to climate change effects in the Arctic, can have a large impact on metal pollution transport. Further, observations showed that individual wetlands of the Selenga River delta locally retained between 77-99 % of incoming metal loads. However, a systematic analysis of current knowledge showed that large-scale net effects can differ considerably from the functions observed at individual wetlands on smaller scales. Along large-scale flow-paths, through which wetlands are connected with each other as well as with the larger landscape, key processes which can considerably contribute to such scale differences in function may occur. A survey of the current wetland research showed that relatively few studies have considered the larger scales at which key pollutant pressures and water quality changes take place. This thesis highlights the need for more research on large-scale wetland systems, which can aid in evaluating net pollution effects at landscape scales. This in turn can facilitate evaluations of how and when wetland systems may function as large-scale nature-based solutions.

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