Author Archives: Noelle Selin

About Noelle Selin

I am Assistant Professor of Engineering Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a joint appointment as Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. I am also affiliated with the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. My research focuses on using atmospheric chemistry modeling to inform decision-making strategies on air pollution, climate change and mercury pollution.

Forty Years of International Mercury Policy: the 1970s (Part 1 of 3)

by Noelle Selin

While the treaty currently under negotiation will be the first global, legally-binding action to address mercury in the environment, it is certainly not the first international policy dealing with the substance. In fact, mercury has been the subject of multilateral cooperation since at least the 1970s. Here’s a summary of some of the actions way back in the disco era. Future posts will bring us through the 80s, 90s and 2000s.

Early international policies on mercury addressed contamination of regional seas such as the Baltic, the North-East Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the North American Great Lakes. Heavy metals were identified as pollutants of high concern at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. In 1973, the OECD urged its members to reduce anthropogenic releases of mercury to the environment to lowest possible levels. Other agreements from the 1970s that included reference to mercury and/or other heavy metals include:

  • International Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Matter (London Convention), 1972
  • Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft (Oslo Convention), 1972
  • Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-Based Sources (Paris Convention), 1973
  • Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area (Helsinki Convention)
  • Mediterranean Action Plan (1975) and Barcelona Convention (1976)
  • Convention on the Protection of the Rhine Against Chemical Pollution, 1976 [pdf]
  • Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1972, 1978)

In addition to these agreements, the European Economic community also introduced its first mercury legislation in the 1970s. In general, mercury was treated in the 1970s as an industrial contaminant, similar to other chemical substances addressed on a national and regional basis. Stay tuned for a summary of the 1980s and 1990s, when international action on mercury grew in scale and scope.

For more information on the history of mercury policy, see the following article: N. E. Selin and H. Selin, “Global Politics of Mercury Pollution: The Need for Multi-Scale Governance,” RECIEL 15 (3) 2006. [pdf]

Where in the World is Mercury? Part 1: The Atmosphere

by Noelle Selin

Mercury is a slippery little element. One of the reasons that it’s the topic of global discussions is that it’s present everywhere on earth. Mostly, this is a result of human activities, both past and present. Mercury concentrations, though, can be higher in some places than others. Identifying where the problem is, and tracking it through time, will be important scientific tasks as implementation of an eventual treaty moves forward. Here’s a quick summary of what we know about mercury concentrations worldwide, beginning with mercury in the atmosphere.

Mercury in air, which exists primarily as elemental mercury, is present throughout the globe. Since mercury remains in the atmosphere for 6 months to a year after it is emitted, it has plenty of time to circle the globe. Typical concentrations of mercury in surface air are about 1.6 ng/m3, but can be substantially higher near sources. Atmospheric measurements can be used, along with models, to monitor changes in mercury atmospheric loadings and help validate emissions estimates. Much activity in this area has been prompted by the UNEP Mercury Air Transport and Fate Research partnership area (for more on the UNEP mercury partnerships, see our earlier post).

Concentrations of mercury in the air are measured at the ground (at land-based stations and on ocean cruises), on mountaintops, and from airplanes. A key project in this area is the Global Mercury Observation System, which aims to establish a worldwide monitoring system for mercury in air and precipitation. A figure of the distribution of stations is below.

GMOS ground-based monitoring sites

GMOS ground-based monitoring sites

Additional measurements are available from the Canadian Atmospheric Mercury Measurement Network (CAMNet) and the U.S. Atmospheric Mercury Network (AMNet), as well as from individual scientific studies. Measurements of mercury in precipitation are conducted in the US by the National Atmospheric Deposition Program’s Mercury Deposition Network and in Europe by EMEP.

A recent example of mercury measurements from a ship cruise is the global circumnavigation of the Galathea 3 [pdf]. From aircraft, mercury is routinely measured as part of the CARIBIC experiment, in which air pollution monitors are included on Lufthansa commercial planes. In addition, research aircrafts studying pollution also measure mercury. The ARCTAS aircraft campaign in 2007-2008 focusing on Arctic pollution included mercury in its measurements, and in the summer of 2013, the North American Airborne Mercury Experiment (NAAMEX) campaign will fly as part of a larger campaign on the NSF C-130 aircraft (picture below). I will be providing modeling support for the NAAMEX campaign, along with MIT students Amanda Giang and Shaojie Song, in collaboration with the University of Washington.


Don’t wait for the treaty! Voluntary action through Mercury Partnerships

Here in Geneva, governments are negotiating a global, legally-binding mercury treaty, and lots of discussions are going on about what governments will commit to doing in the future. But even though the treaty is still not complete, governments and others have been working to address the mercury problem on a voluntary basis since 2005, in part through so-called mercury partnerships. These partnerships include seven priority action areas, each focusing on a main sources of mercury. Here are links to information about the partnership areas:

Current partners include governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and others.  A list of the current partners is available here.  Individuals or entities who would like to become partners can join by submitting a letter and registration form to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) [pdf].


Want to learn more about Mercury? Play the game!

Are you interested in mercury science and policy? Do you teach an introductory science or environmental issues class and want to include a science-policy element? Do you want to explore science-policy interactions with your colleagues or lab group? We’ve created the Mercury Game to teach people about the role of science in international environmental policy making in an interactive and fun environment — and it’s free to download!

The mercury game is a role-play simulation for ten players aimed at scientists, students and decision makers. Playing the game will help participants explore the consequences of representing scientific uncertainty in various ways in a policy context. The game focuses on the credibility of various sources of technical information, strategies for representing risk and uncertainty, and the balance between scientific and political considerations. The game also requires players to grapple with politics – it explores the dynamic between the global “North” (the developed world) and the global “South” (the developing world) at the heart of most treaty-making difficulties.

For more information on the game, see this video, featuring our own Leah Stokes. Leah wrote the game along with Noelle Selin and Lawrence Susskind at MIT.




Interested in Mercury Science and Policy? Follow Our Blog and Twitter!

We’re a team of MIT students and faculty who are attending the UN INC5 negotiations for a global treaty on mercury, which are taking place in Geneva, Switzerland, from 13-18 January, 2013. Our goal is to help inform negotiators, scientists, and the general public with the latest scientific findings on mercury of relevance to the treaty process.

Our trip is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation as part of a research grant to Prof. Noelle Selin. More info here.

Follow us on our blog and twitter (@MITMercury) as we discuss issues related to mercury science and international policy making, and provide real-time reporting on the negotiations.