Sediment cores were collected to investigate multiple stresses on Clear Lake, California, USA, through the period of European occupation to the present day. Earlier workers suggested the hypothesis that the use of mechanized earthmoving equipment, starting in the 1920s and 1930s, was responsible for erosion, mercury (Hg) contamination, and habitat loss stresses. Cores (;2.5 m in depth) were collected in 1996 and 2000 from each of the three arms of the lake. Carbon-14 dating suggests that these cores represent as much as 3000 years of the lake’s history, beginning long before European settlement. Total mercury (TotHg) and methylmercury (MeHg), dry matter, water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and the stable isotopes 13C and 15N were measured at 5-cm intervals. Nearly all parameters show major changes at depths of 58–135 cm, beginning at ca. 1927 (dated with 210Pb). Accepting this date for concomitant major changes in seven cores yields an estimated 8.6 mm/yr average sedimentation rate after 1927. Pre-1927 sedimentation rates were ;1 mm/yr. Total mercury and MeHg, dry matter, phosphorus, and 15N increase significantly, whereas nitrogen, sulfur, carbon, and water content decrease significantly above the 1927 horizon. Both TotHg and MeHg show extremely large increases (roughly 10-fold) above the 1927 horizon. A peak in inorganic deposition rate and minimum values for percentage of water is present at depths corresponding to ca. 1970. Interestingly, the first 75 years of European settlement in the Clear Lake basin (including the most productive years of the Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine) appeared to have had undetectable effects on lake cores. Changes since 1927 were dramatic.
The large increase in Hg beginning about 1927 corresponds to the use of heavy equipment to exploit the ore deposit at the mine using open-pit methods. Increases in sediment deposition from increased earthmoving in the basin and sulfate loading from the mine are the most likely explanations for the dramatic changes seen in the post-1927 sections of the cores.