Uncertainties in historical pollution data from sedimentary records from an Australian urban floodplain lake

A. Lintern, P. Leahy, A. Deletic, H. Heijnis, A. Zawadzki, P. Gadd, D. McCarthy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Sediment cores from aquatic environments can provide valuable information about historical pollution levels and sources. However, there is little understanding of the uncertainties associated with these findings. The aim of this study is to fill this knowledge gap by proposing a framework for quantifying the uncertainties in historical heavy metal pollution records reconstructed from sediment cores. This uncertainty framework consists of six sources of uncertainty: uncertainties in (1) metals analysis methods, (2) spatial variability of sediment core heavy metal profiles, (3) sub-sampling intervals, (4) the sediment chronology, (5) the assumption that metal levels in bed sediments reflect the magnitude of metal inputs into the aquatic system, and (6) post-depositional transformation of metals. We apply this uncertainty framework to an urban floodplain lake in South-East Australia (Willsmere Billabong). We find that for this site, uncertainties in historical dated heavy metal profiles can be up to 176%, largely due to uncertainties in the sediment chronology, and in the assumption that the settled heavy metal mass is equivalent to the heavy metal mass entering the aquatic system. As such, we recommend that future studies reconstructing historical pollution records using sediment cores from aquatic systems undertake an investigation of the uncertainties in the reconstructed pollution record, using the uncertainty framework provided in this study. We envisage that quantifying and understanding the uncertainties associated with the reconstructed pollution records will facilitate the practical application of sediment core heavy metal profiles in environmental management projects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)560-571
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


  • Heavy metals
  • Historical trends
  • Palaeolimnology
  • Sediment cores
  • Uncertainty

Cite this