Modeling the effects of aerosols on groundwater systems

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Brown, Theresa Jean

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Just as children eventually learn that covering their eyes does not make them invisible, we as adults have realized that just because harmful substances are "out-of-site" it does not necessarily mean they are gone for good. As we expanded our ability to think abstractly we began to consider how our actions affect our future and the lives of future generations. For example, we established procedures for the handling and disposal of high level radioactive waste and other hazardous materials because of the threat such materials pose to the environment. To date, however, the effect of atmospheric pollutants on groundwater supplies has been virtually ignored. Atmospheric pollution sources include, but are not limited to, smoke stack emissions, releases from power plants, weapons testing and manufacturing, fires, explosions, and deflation from tailings, spills and playas. This study evaluates the potential for groundwater to be contaminated by a point-source atmospheric emission. Pollutant concentrations in groundwater are estimated using a Gaussian model of atmospheric transport, a transfer function model for transport through the unsaturated zone, and a two-dimensional groundwater flow model based on Darcy's law to simulate transport in the saturated groundwater system. A sensitivity analysis of the composite atmospheric-groundwater transport model suggests that the most important factors influencing the susceptibility of a groundwater system to contamination by an aerosol source are: the concentration of the source, the amount of recharge, the depth to the water-table, and the velocity distribution in the unsaturated zone. This study indicates a significant potential for pollution of groundwater systems by aerosols. Shallow aquifers are especially vulnerable; however, deeper aquifers where rapid travel times through the unsaturated zone exist are also susceptible to aerosol contamination.