Heavy metals in the hydrological cycle: Trends and explanation

I. D.L. Foster, S. M. Charlesworth

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    235 Citations (Scopus)


    This paper reviews the major sources and transport characteristics of heavy metals in the hydrological cycle. It is demonstrated that heavy metal releases to the environment have changed from 19th and early 20th century production-related activities to consumption-oriented factors in more recent times. The relative roles of particle size, sorption and desorption processes, partitioning and the chemical speciation of heavy metals on fine sediments are identified to understand the likely fate of heavy metals released into fluvial systems. It is argued that the spatial and temporal distribution of heavy metals in the river corridor depends not only on an understanding of metal solubility and speciation, but also on an understanding of sediment dynamics which control, for example, floodplain alluviation and the accumulation of metals in the bottom sediments of contaminated rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Existing long- and short-term records are examined to identify the current state of knowledge about the factors which affect heavy metal releases into aquatic environments. With limited exceptions, it is shown that few long-term studies of trends in heavy metal transport are available although, for some major rivers, limited data on trends in metal concentration exists. Palaeolimnological reconstruction techniques, based on an analysis of lake and reservoir sediments, are identified as a possible means of supplementing monitored records of heavy metal transport. Although numerous studies have suggested that trends in atmospheric contamination, mining and urbanization may be identified in the bottom sediment record, other research has shown that the radionuclide-based chronology and the heavy metal distribution within the sediment are more likely to be a function of post-depositional remobilization than the history of metal loading to the basin. Despite these limitations, it is shown that the incorporation of reservoir bottom sediment analysis into a heavy metal research programme, based in river corridors of Midland England, provides an opportunity to identify and quantify the relative contribution of point and non-point contributions to the heavy metal budget and to relate trends in metal contamination to specific periods of catchment disturbance.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)227-261
    Number of pages35
    JournalHydrological Processes
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 1996


    • Fluvial sediments
    • Heavy metals
    • Metal contamination history
    • Point and non-point contamination
    • Reservoir sediments

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Water Science and Technology


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