Reconstructing historical trends in metal input in heavily-disturbed, contaminated estuaries: studies from Bilbao, Southampton Water and Sicily

Andrew Cundy, I.W. Croudace, A. Cearreta, M.J. Irabien

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Estuaries may be important reservoirs for contaminants as they tend to act as sinks for fine, contaminant-reactive sediments, and, historically, they have acted as centres for industrial and urban development. Analysis of dated sediment cores from these areas may allow historical trends in heavy metal input to be reconstructed, and recent and historical inputs of metal contaminants to be compared. Undisturbed saltmarsh settings have been used widely in the reconstruction of historical trends in metal input as saltmarshes provide a stable, vegetated substrate of dominantly fine sediments, and are less prone to erosion and reworking than adjacent mudflat areas. In comparison, much less research on historical pollution trends has been undertaken at estuarine sites which are prone to severe local disturbance, such as intertidal areas which are routinely dredged or where sedimentary processes have been modified by human activities such as shipping, salt working, port activities, land claim etc. This paper assesses the usefulness of 210Pb and 137Cs dating, combined with geochemical studies, in reconstructing historical trends in heavy metal input and sediment accretion in 3 heavily-modified, industrialised estuarine areas in Europe: the Bilbao estuary (Spain), Southampton Water (UK), and the Mulinello estuary (Sicily). Of these sites, only a salt marsh core from the Mulinello estuary provides a high-resolution record of recent heavy metal inputs. In Southampton Water only a partial record of changing metal inputs over time is retained due to land-claim and possible early-diagenetic remobilisation, while at Bilbao the vertical distribution of heavy metals in intertidal flats is mainly controlled by input on reworked sediment particles and variations in sediment composition. Where 137Cs and 210Pb distributions with depth allow a chronology of sediment deposition to be established, and early-diagenetic remobilisation has been minimal, mudflat and saltmarsh cores from even the most heavily-disturbed estuarine sites can provide useful information on variations in historical contaminant input. When the sediments have been vigorously mixed or reworked, large-scale compositional variations are present, or significant early-diagenetic remobilisation has occurred, however, only general information on the scale of contamination can be obtained.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)311-325
    Number of pages15
    JournalApplied geochemistry
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2003


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