Groundwater flow controls on coastal water quality and global groundwater ages




Befus, Kevin Martin

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Humanity relies on groundwater. But, current consumption may be outpacing groundwater renewal rates, and anthropogenic activities are altering its quality. This dissertation advances the state of knowledge of how local and regional groundwater dynamics affect its quality and quantity. First, I investigate groundwater discharge patterns and fluxes in three lakes in the Nebraska Sand Hills region and on the island of Rarotonga, Cook Islands, to understand the hydrologic connection between groundwater and surface water in these lacustrine and coastal settings. In Nebraska, I use electrical geophysical methods to characterize the spatial signature of groundwater recharge and discharge to and from the lakes using groundwater salinity patterns. On Rarotonga, a detailed field study of groundwater flow at the intertidal zone shows how groundwater flow influences the thermal regimes of nearshore environments, affecting the biota that live and chemical processes that occur near and below this dynamic interface. Next, a dense network of geophysical surveys across the coastal plain and into the lagoon on Rarotonga constrains multiple features of the larger-scale hydrologic system that are primarily controlled by the local carbonate and volcanic geology on the island. Finally, I give the first estimate of the global storage and spatial distribution of groundwater with a mean age since recharge of less than fifty years. I use several thousand two-dimensional groundwater flow and age-as-mass transport simulations parameterized by the best available hydrologic and geologic datasets. This global analysis suggested that ~6% of the groundwater stored in the upper 2 km of the Earth’s crust is younger than 50 years. Comparing this young groundwater storage to current groundwater depletion rates indicates that more than half of the irrigated areas depending significantly on groundwater could have already used up all of the young groundwater and are using groundwater more quickly than the storage is replenished. Together, these studies advance how to quantify groundwater as a renewable resource through the global estimation of groundwater storage associated with certain timespans and by analyzing the implications of groundwater flow on water quantity and quality in field settings.


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