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Groundwater and a ‘green drought’

Groundwater and a ‘green drought’

Post by Andy Baker, professor in the Connected Waters Initiative Centre at UNSW Sydney, Andreas Hartmann, assistant professor in Hydrological Modeling and Water Resources at the University of Freiburg, and Romane BerthelinPhD student in Hydrological Modeling and Water Resources at the University of Freiburg.


Here in New South Wales (NSW) in southeastern Australia, a long-running drought continues. The government’s water minister Melinda Pavey noted recently that “This drought is more severe than NSW has ever experienced” and some of the worst in living memory. Almost all the state of NSW is suffering from drought, according the NSW Dept of Primary Industries, with some regions predicted to run out of water by November.

Almost a year ago, one of us (AB) wrote about the relationship between groundwater and drought, concluding that a groundwater drought had commenced across much of New South Wales. We noted that flooding rains were needed to generate some river recharge, to replenish our groundwater resource. It hasn’t happened. But, in many places, the landscape is green, and the term ‘green drought’ is now being used. What is it?

Wellington, NSW. August 2019. This is the UNSW Research Station, normally stocked and cropped, but not in 2018 or 2019.

Before answering that, we will quickly explain some groundwater terminology. Firstly, recharge is the process by which water reaches, or ‘tops up’, an aquifer. The two main types of recharge are ‘river recharge’, where water leaks from the base of a river, lake or reservoir and into the groundwater system. The other is ‘rainfall recharge’ which occurs when the water holding capacity of a soil is exceeded, allowing the downward flux of water. Quantifying the relative contributions of river recharge and rainfall recharge is not easy. For example, groundwater levels measured in bores or wells would be determined by one or both of these processes, plus of course any other non-climate factors such as groundwater abstraction.

So how does this relate to a ‘green drought’? Well, the term is being used because in some regions there has been enough rainfall for some shallow rooted vegetation to grow. In farming regions, a ‘green drought’ can specifically refer to the fact that fields look green, but the colour comes from weeds and other undesirable plants. When you see extensive green weeds across the landscape they reflect that there is another environmental problem – a paucity of recharge heading towards the aquifer. This rainfall can penetrate the soil profile, but only to a limited extent before the water is taken up by plants or evaporates back into the atmosphere (both process together are called evapotranspiration). In a ‘green drought’, none of this water penetrates deeper parts of the soil profile; there is not enough rain to saturate the soil and generate either a downward flux of water from the soil profile (often called deep drainage) or surface runoff to rivers. The groundwater recharge drought continues.

Here in the Central West NSW we have some excellent data to show exactly what is going on. At a karstified limestone site we have been simultaneously measuring rainfall, soil water storage and recharge events expressed by cave drip waters since April 2018. All part of an international network to characterize karstic recharge and evapotranspiration.

On the surface, Andreas Hartmann downloads data from the network of soil moisture probes at Wellington, New South Wales. 25 meters underground, loggers record when water reaches the cave.

Since April 2018 we have had only one recharge event recorded in the cave. This occurred in October 2018 and was after 50 mm of rainfall on one day (5 October 2018). No other rainfall events have generated recharge at the monitoring site since April 2018, despite many rain days with much lower rainfall amounts. The frequency histogram of daily rainfall shows this:

Since the start of 2018, there have been just over 100 days where 10 mm or less of rain has fallen. Some of this rain will have contributed to vegetation growth and the greening of the landscape. But only one day had enough rain to generate rainfall recharge.

What about the soil moisture? The probe network shows that the highest water content of the soil occurred after the October 2018 rainfall event, the same one that led to the only recharge event. However, there are also many other rainfall events that increased the soil water content, but did not lead to recharge. This increased soil water can be utilized by vegetation, leading to a greening of the landscape.

Hence the term ‘green drought’. However, as our monitoring network shows, this green drought is also a groundwater drought. The date when water will run out, or ‘Day 0’, is approaching for some towns. The drilling of new ‘emergency bores’ to tap groundwater are planned to help maintain water supplies in drought affected regions. Let’s hope for groundwater recharging rainfall events soon. Our monitoring at Wellington, NSW, shows how much rain is needed and how rarely such events occur.


Andy Baker is a Professor in the Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre at UNSW Sydney. His research interests include the study of unsaturated zone hydrological and geochemical processes in karst. Find out more at his personal webpage www.bakerlabgroup.org
Andreas Hartmann is an Assistant Professor in Hydrological Modeling and Water Resources at the University of Freiburg. His primary field of interest is karst hydrology and hydrological modelling. Find out more at his personal webpage www.subsurface-heterogeneity.com
Romane Berthelin is a PhD student in the Hydrological Modeling and Water Resources at the University of Freiburg. Her primary field of interest is karst hydrogeology. In her PhD, Romane is collecting soil moisture data and soil water isotopic profiles at five representative sites across the globe.

Shedding light on the invisible: addressing potential groundwater contamination by plastic microfibers

Shedding light on the invisible: addressing potential groundwater contamination by plastic microfibers

Post by Viviana Re, researcher at the University of Pisa in Italy. You can follow Viviana on Twitter at @biralnas.


Until recently, the topic of plastic pollution was relatively unknown to the general public, although the problem was already under everyone’s very eyes.

Indeed, plastic pollution has become one of the most debated issues over the last few years, in some cases even overshadowing the concerns about climate change, and with particular concern about the effects of microplastic (i.e. plastic particles smaller than 5 mm in length) in the natural environment.

First reported in the early 1970s in the Sargasso Sea of the North Atlantic, microplastics have since become a ubiquitous pollutant found in fish and marine animals, table salt, beer, and even drinking water.

Screenshot of LITTERBASE’s Online Portal of Marine Litter (https://litterbase.awi.de/litter).

In parallel with raising awareness (and concern), this emerging issue prompted the scientific community to advance the understanding of the presence and potential effects of microplastics on natural ecosystems and human health.

As a result, the number of studies addressing microplastic pollution in surface water is rapidly increasing, ranging from case studies assessing the presence of these particles in a specific surface water body, to investigations on their possible toxicity, to proposed methodology regarding qualitative and quantitative assessment of their occurrence.

However, despite this growing body of literature, there is a component of the water cycle that remains less considered: groundwater. In fact, so far, only a few studies targeting microplastic occurrence in groundwater have been published (e.g. Bouwman et al. 2018; Mintenig et al. 2019; Panno et al. 2019). Further, only recently was the presence of microscopic plastic fibers in tap water from underground sources revealed. Thus, a great challenge for the international hydrogeological community lies in addressing the potential for groundwater contamination by plastic microfibers. In particular, the key challenges to be addressed are:

  1. The determination of microplastic occurrence in groundwater and, if present, to assess transport mechanisms in different aquifers.
  2. An assessment of the role of microplastics as carriers of contaminants within aquifers.
  3. To define a standardized procedure for microfiber sampling and monitoring in groundwater.

 

In order to complement the existing knowledge on microplastic contamination of aquatic environments, all issues should be tackled in collaboration with surface hydrologists, biologists and scientists already active in the filed.

Additionally, while doing so, we should also engage firsthand and be part of the solution, hence reducing as much as we can the production and release of plastic and microplastic. Don’t know how to start? Consider joining the recently concluded (but annually run) Plastic Free July challenge!

This post is based on a recently published paper:

Re (2019). Shedding light on the invisible: addressing the potential for groundwater contamination by plastic microfibers. Hydrogeology Journal. Open access

Urban water underground: How green infrastructure makes it visible

Urban water underground: How green infrastructure makes it visible

Post by Theodore Lim, assistant professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech. He researches the socio-hydrology of green infrastructure planning and implementation.


In order for people to care about something, to value it, they have to be able to see it and experience it. This point should not be taken lightly. So much about decision-making and policy-making depends on how much public support can be organized around any given issue. So, when it comes to protecting the water resources that sustain society and the natural environment, it is perhaps unsurprising that groundwater is the part of water cycle that most folks tend to ignore.

Historically, urbanization has made it difficult for residents to experience key parts of the water cycle. In Philadelphia, for example, in order to improve sanitation, reduce flooding, and make way for the regular street grid, dozens of streams were channeled into brick sewers that were then buried under roads to make transportation routes more efficient and the city easier to navigate. Today, these historical streams are literally buried underground, and still carry a mix of raw sewage and stormwater runoff, that overflows into neighboring creeks and streams when it rains.

Sewering Mill Creek in West Philadelphia, 1883. Image Source: http://www.phillyh2o.org.

Green infrastructure is an approach to urban water management that reintroduces key parts of the hydrological cycle to the visible urban environment. Green infrastructure can involve surface water, through daylighting streams, but it can also means removing concrete and asphalt, to allow water to trickle slowly into the ground, be soaked up by plant roots, and evaporated back into the air, or to recharge deeper groundwater tables. An example of this is a rain garden, or bioinfiltration facility, which intercepts rainfall with vegetated land, as an aesthetic and low-maintenance alternative to conventional drainage systems.

Bioinfiltration facility installed in a residential neighborhood in Washington, D.C. (Photo by author)

How do urban residents “see” these important elements of the hydrological cycle? One answer is: by their recognizing them as “infrastructures” for modern cities — elements that provide critical services, in addition to environmental amenities. Plants and restored soils are not just “nice to have,” they help moderate surface temperatures, protect water quality, and support biological function. Public investment in street tree planting has been shown to increase pedestrian activity, public health, and property values. Green infrastructure programs in cities can also be integrated with climate action plans, sustainability initiatives, and parks and recreation programs; such programs often attract businesses and residents with their progressive attitudes.

Urban residents can learn about the “ecosystem services” associated with hydrological cycle improvements thanks to scientific signage, infographics, partnerships between  environmental non-profits and community outreach, programs run by municipal water managers (water/wastewater utilities, departments of environmental protection, or stormwater districts). Most of all, residents learn from each other and are more likely to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors when they are surrounded to neighbors who do the same.

Stormdrain art in Philadelphia, designed by children in Philadelphia public schools (Photo by author)

Green infrastructure monitoring and signage in Chicago. Image: https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/chicago-sensors-green-infrastructure-study

Restoring hydrological function within urban areas can be seen as a microcosm of larger-scale environmental policy-making. On the regional scale, “green infrastructure” can refer to the large swaths of undeveloped land in a natural state, or to working lands, such as those used for timber production or agriculture, which all provide critical ecosystem services to society. Environmental planners who work at the state or regional level or with land trust organizations, might use policies, economic incentives, and land regulations to protect these landscapes from low density suburban sprawl or urbanization. However, on both urban and regional scales, the decision-making about land use, management, and development is heavily dependent on co-operation between diverse stakeholders, and relies on a mutual understanding of the value of natural environments for various communities..

Urban and environmental planners tell stories that bring together multiple voices in collaboration.  These stories also give the historical and social context to decision-making around environmental systems, which is vital to ensure equitable outcomes. Unfortunately, despite advances in integrated modeling and the scientific knowledge of complex interrelations between water and society, decision-making still falls back on heuristics and rules-of-thumb. A highly relevant question therefore is: how can we integrate groundwater science into more robust city and regional-scale participatory planning, that is equitable and implementable? The answer will hopefully lead us to a strategy where urban and environmental infrastructures visibly advance the well-being of communities.

Update on the groundwater situation in Cape Town

Update on the groundwater situation in Cape Town

Post by Jared van Rooyen, PhD student in Earth Science at Stellenbosch University, in South Africa.


When the Cape Town water crisis first emerged it took almost a year before active contingencies were put in place. Four major ideas were proposed: (1) Intense water restrictions for municipal water users, (2) greywater recycling facilities, (3) groundwater augmentation of water supplies, and (4) desalination.

Although not all the proposed ideas came to fruition, there was a significant increase in the installation of well points and boreholes for municipal and private use. The national and provincial governments began the investigation and development of three major aquifers in the Western Cape. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the initial estimates for extraction were never realized as a result of poor water quality in the Cape Flats aquifer, power struggles between government parties and typical delays in service delivery in South Africa. In contrast, private groundwater consultants are benefiting from the high demand for groundwater use by residents installing private wells to alleviate the pressures of stringent water restrictions.

There are now two plausible scenarios for the groundwater use situation in the Western Cape: either we have not yet begun to abstract any significant amounts of groundwater, or we lack the data to show if we have. It is difficult to provide empirical evidence on whether groundwater levels are indeed declining and if it is a result of the drought (or abstraction or both). The trouble is that, unlike surface water storage where we can see the direct evidence of the drought, how much water is in an aquifer cannot be directly observed and must be estimated via an indirect method.

Estimating changes in groundwater availability usually requires detailed baseline data to be available, meaning that the state of a resource is relative to the baseline data available and can be over/underestimated as a result. One example of this was the subject of a controversial string of news articles released in the first months of 2019.

The Department of Water Affairs (DWS) released an interactive map of monitoring boreholes across South Africa which includes a record of normalized water levels (0% being the lowest measured water level in meters above sea level (masl) and 100% the highest measured water level) averaged over a province (Figure 1) . The graph shows a decline in average water levels in the last three years, but the record only goes back to 2009 and it is difficult to say if this a drought signal, a result of abstraction, or simply a natural fluctuation over a longer timescale.

Figure 1: Plot showing the severity of groundwater levels in the Western Cape of South Africa, averaged groundwater levels are plotted as a normalized percentage of the lowest and highest recorded levels in the borehole history. Credit: NIWIS DWA South Africa

Respected researcher and geochemist Dr. Meris Mills investigated historical data from the national groundwater archive and found that much of the data before 2015 were too sparse to be considered representative of the groundwater level. Data density and availability still is a major limiting factor in groundwater studies in South Africa.

Dr. Mills found that 55% of boreholes show statistically significant declining water levels and 63% of boreholes recorded an all time low water level after 2015 to late 2018 (since 1978). She concluded that fractured rock aquifers were the least affected and that 37% of boreholes with falling water levels were, in fact, not related to the recent drought. The cause for these declines in water levels are still unknown.

It is still difficult to quantify how much groundwater contributed to the recovery of Cape Town’s dam levels, if at all, but the resultant interest in long term groundwater supply has sparked debate surrounding local groundwater resources.

It is also clear that the effects of the drought on groundwater resources remain to be fully realized, however our groundwater, in general, is more resilient to change than we may think. Depending on the angle you look at it, initial findings may either indicate that groundwater is potentially a lifeline to cities crippled by a water supply crisis, or a time bomb with a delayed fuse.

Have you ever wondered if groundwater is connected to climate?

Have you ever wondered if groundwater is connected to climate?

Post by Tom Gleeson Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering at the University of Victoria.


‘Groundwater-surface water interactions’ has become standard hydrologic lexicon and a perennial favorite session title at various conferences… but how often do you hear the phrase ‘groundwater-climate interactions’?

A group of hydrologists, hydrogeologists, atmospheric scientists and geodesists that met in Taiwan this week would say ‘not enough!’ We met to discuss how groundwater, the slow-moving grandparent of the hydrologic cycle interacts with the atmosphere, the fast-moving toddler. The 2nd international workshop on Impacts of Groundwater in Earth system Models (IGEM), was a follow-up of a 2016 workshop in Paris in 2016 (and part of a the bilateral French-Taiwanese IGEM project).

Sessions were focused around a few themes:

  • Groundwater use and its impacts
  • Groundwater representation, assimilation and evaluation in climate models
  • Remote Sensing and in-situ observations on groundwater
  • Groundwater-climate interactions with a special focus on Nebraska

 

And in the afternoons we convened discussion groups focused on ‘groundwater representation in continental to global hydrologic models’ and ‘groundwater-climate interactions’ and arguably just as importantly we ate lots of great food including an awesome fusion dinner and dumplings at the famous Din Tai Fung.

I would love to say that we could provide you with a simple, robust answer to the leading question of how and where groundwater is connected to climate – a holy grail of Earth System science. But like all good questions, the answer at least right now is ‘a little bit in some places, and it depends how you look at it’. We discussed the first enticing but preliminary results of potential hotspots of groundwater-climate interactions, expounded on the importance to water sustainability and dissected vadose zone parameterizations in land surface models but the quest for this holy grail goes on… We plan to meet again in a few years in Saskatchewan and maybe have a few more answers. Do you want to join us on this holy grail quest, and maybe end up making ‘groundwater-climate interactions’ more standard lexicon?

P.S. Thanks to Min-Hui Lo and his group at National Taiwan University for the excellent hospitality and organization!

P.S.S. Just in case it goes viral, the term ‘baddest-ass model’ was first used by Jay Famiglietti (see below).

Groundwater and drought

Groundwater and drought

Post by Andy Baker, Professor researching groundwater, caves, past climate, organic carbon and more at the University of New South Wales, in Australia.

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Drought is in the news here in New South Wales, Australia. But how are rainfall, drought and groundwater related?

First, we need to understand what drought is. Is it a water shortage? Or a lack of rainfall? Or something else? In the USA, the National Climatic Data Center define drought as the ‘absence of water’. They identify four types of drought: 1) meteorological drought (a lack of rainfall), 2) hydrological drought (a loss of surface water or groundwater supply), 3) agricultural drought (a water shortage leading to crop failure), and 4) socioeconomic drought (where demand for water exceeds availability).

Here in Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology defines drought as ‘a prolonged, abnormally dry period when the amount of available water is insufficient to meet our normal use’.  They add that ‘drought is not simply low rainfall; if it was, much of inland Australia would be in almost perpetual drought’. Much of inland Australia depends on surface and groundwater for their economy. If those regions experienced a groundwater drought, it would therefore be bad news.

Let’s look at New South Wales again. It covers both coastal regions, such as Sydney (where I am writing this), as well as a vast interior (where most of my research is based). The Bureau of Meteorology produces meteorological drought maps based on rainfall amounts over recent months. The current map shows large areas of New South Wales are experiencing rainfall totals that are in the lowest 10 percentile (‘serious’), lowest 5 percentile (‘severe’) and the lowest on record.

How does this deficiency in rainfall affect groundwater? And is there a groundwater drought? Long-term measurement of groundwater levels in boreholes (also called wells, depending on your country) can tell you whether water levels are rising or falling. Wells integrate groundwater recharge that comes from both surface water (e.g. rivers that lose water through their base) and from rainfall (also called diffuse recharge).

Real-time data of water levels from telemetered boreholes can provide timely information on groundwater drought (for example, here for NSW). Satellite products such as GRACE, which can infer groundwater levels from small changes in gravity over time, can provide large scale spatial coverage. Modelling products can calculate water balance from meteorological, soil and land use data.

The current Bureau of Meteorology map shows that deep soil moisture is very much below average across New South Wales. If we assume that deep soil moisture levels are only determined by rainfall recharge, then from this we would expect no rainfall recharge of groundwater to be occurring over large parts of New South Wales. From one location, Wellington, close to the middle of the drought region, we have the measured evidence from inside a cave that shows that rainfall recharge hasn’t occurred for 18 months (and counting).

Since 2011, forty loggers have been measuring the water percolating through the unsaturated zone of the limestone at a depth of 25 m at Wellington Caves. This winter, I did the latest download of the data. Or rather, the lack of data, as only four drip water sources were still active. Conditions in the cave are the driest since we started collecting data in 2011.

Drip rates have been on the decline since the winter of 2016. But note the decline temporarily slowed in 2017, starting in early April. That is the response to the last time there was rainfall recharge there – owing to almost 70 mm of rain falling over three days in late March 2017. Eighteen months ago.

In the inland of New South Wales, it is clear that in dryland farming regions, the lack of rainfall has now led to an agricultural drought. In contrast, latest available data from our groundwater monitoring networks shows that there is currently no decline in groundwater levels in the major irrigation districts, which is where river recharge occurs. But for our dryland farmers, and ecosystems that rely on rainfall recharge, the karst drip data show that the groundwater drought has hit. Australia is often called a country of drought and flooding rains. Flooding rains are what we need next so that we also have some river recharge to replenish our groundwater resource.

 

Wellington, NSW. July 2018. This is the UNSW Research Station, normally stocked and cropped, but not this year.

How deep does groundwater go? Mining (dark) data from the depths

How deep does groundwater go? Mining (dark) data from the depths

Post by Kevin Befus, Assistant Professor at the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Wyoming, in the United States.

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3D geologic data can be hard to come by, and can be even more difficult to combine into a continuous dataset. The cross-sections shown here are directly from 3D groundwater models that I compiled [Befus et al., 2017], primarily from USGS groundwater models, for the U.S. East Coast. I kept each of the regional domains (different color swaths on the map) separate, since I ran into the issue of “border discontinuities” between different models where naming conventions and hydrostratigraphic structure didn’t match up. Kh is the horizontal hydraulic conductivity.

We’ve all been asked (or do the asking), “where does your water come from?” This is a fundamental question for establishing a series of additional questions that can ultimately help define strategies for valuing and protecting a particular water resource.

For groundwater, we could phrase this question differently, and I often do when talking to well owners: How deep is your well? If I get an answer to this, then I can dive into additional questions that can help define more about the local groundwater resource: How deep is the well screen? How long is the screen? Do you know what the water level in the well is? Has it changed over some given time? Seasonally?

These are all useful questions, and they serve to begin establishing the hydraulic conditions of a particular aquifer. I ask these whenever I can.

To do this at a larger scale, we can turn to various governmental agencies that regulate groundwater resources and/or water well drilling and often collect and store groundwater data (e.g., www.waterqualitydata.us/, http://nlog.nl/en/data, http://gin.gw-info.net/service/api_ngwds:gin2/en/gin.html, or http://www.bgs.ac.uk/research/groundwater/datainfo/NWRA.html). There is a wealth of information out there internationally on wells when they were drilled and where the driller first hit water. These driller logs can provide a snapshot in time of the water table elevation and can be extremely useful for tracking hydrologic variability [Perrone and Jasechko, 2017], extracting hydraulic parameters [Bayless et al., 2017],  and for testing model results [Fan et al., 2013]. Unfortunately for us earthy nerds, some governments have restricted access to well installation data for either certain types of wells (i.e., municipal) or for all wells, usually for privacy or safety concerns.

Back to the original question. How deep is groundwater? I keep this question broad. We can usually answer this question for particular areas where we have access to the right data, but for large parts of the globe, and potentially underneath you right now, we cannot answer this question. The “right data” for a hydrogeologist is some form of information on geologic/stratigraphic layer (or lack of layering) that can be tied to the rock properties. For a surficial, unconfined aquifer, this can be relatively easy, but when we start stacking several geologic units on top of each other or start actually using the groundwater, this question of how deep groundwater is becomes tricky. We could qualify this question by asking how deep “usable” groundwater is, which, of course, depends on our definition of usable water for a specific purpose. Or, we can point (or integrate) through the Earth’s crust, core, and right back to its crust and calculate the huge value of how much water is “in the ground” (and minerals)[Bodnar et al., 2013]. And I haven’t even brought up porosity yet! Or specific storage!

A example of a great public 3D interactive web viewer (https://wateratlas.net/) that integrates groundwater data, geological information, and well construction details produced by the Centre for Coal Seam Gas at the University of Queensland (https://ccsg.centre.uq.edu.au/), which is supported by the University of Queensland and industry partners. For more information on this water atlas, please contact Dr. Sue Vink (s.vink@smi.uq.edu.au) or Alexandra Wolhuter (a.wolhuter@uq.edu.au).

Don’t worry. I won’t go there. I want to harass/encourage the hydro[geo]logic community to get serious about sharing their hydrogeologic data. This does mean metadata (do I hear a collective groan?), but metadata and data management plans are increasingly required to secure funding. CUAHSI’s Hydroshare site (www.hydroshare.org) provides a platform uploading hydro models, and the U.S. Geological Survey has developed a slick web system for exploring hydrogeologic models. But, I’d like to take this further, or at least get a service like that going for anyone who wants to share their models. There is a wealth of crustal structure data out there, and groundwater models are unique in often containing some representation of three-dimensional geology/hydrostratigraphy along with Earth properties. There are some great deterministic, published datasets and models of global hydrogeology [De Graaf et al., 2015; Huscroft et al., 2018], but we can do better. Wouldn’t it be great to have a centralized database to extract an ensemble of hydrogeologic structure used in previous regional or local studies? How about be able to draw a model boundary on a web interface and extract 3D structure for your next model? And compare cross-sections between models in the same area? Want to start fitting your puzzle pieces into the international hydrogeologic puzzle? The question now becomes, how do we do it? A “DigitalCrust” has been proposed [Fan et al., 2015], but is not yet in reach.

Join the movement of a “Digital Earth” [Gore, 1998]!

Here are some examples, initiatives, and free 3D [hydro]geology resources to get you started:

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Kevin Befus leads the groundwater hydrology group in the Civil and Architectural Engineering Department at the University of Wyoming. With his research group, he studies how groundwater systems respond to hydrologic conditions over glacial timescales and in mountainous and coastal environments.  You can follow along with Kevin’s research through any of the links below:

Personal WebpageTwitter Research Group Page | UW Faculty Page

 

 

 

 

 

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References

Bayless, E. R., L. D. Arihood, H. W. Reeves, B. J. S. Sperl, S. L. Qi, V. E. Stipe, and A. R. Bunch (2017), Maps and Grids of Hydrogeologic Information Created from Standardized Water-Well Driller’s Records of the Glaciated United States, U.S. Geol. Surv. Sci. Investig. Report2, 20155105, 34, doi:10.3133/sir20155105.

Befus, K. M., K. D. Kroeger, C. G. Smith, and P. W. Swarzenski (2017), The Magnitude and Origin of Groundwater Discharge to Eastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico Coastal Waters, Geophys. Res. Lett., 44(20), 10,396-10,406, doi:10.1002/2017GL075238.

Bodnar, R. J., T. Azbej, S. P. Becker, C. Cannatelli, A. Fall, and M. J. Severs (2013), Whole Earth geohydrologic cycle, from the clouds to the core: The distribution of water in the dynamic Earth system, Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap., 500, 431–461, doi:10.1130/2013.2500(13).

Fan, Y., H. Li, and G. Miguez-Macho (2013), Global patterns of groundwater table depth, Science, 339(6122), 940–943, doi:10.1126/science.1229881.

Fan, Y. et al. (2015), DigitalCrust – a 4D data system of material properties for transforming research on crustal fluid flow, Geofluids, 15(1–2), 372–379, doi:10.1111/gfl.12114.

Gore, A. (1998), The Digital Earth: Understanding our planet in the 21st Century, Aust. Surv., 43(2), 89–91, doi:10.1080/00050326.1998.10441850.

De Graaf, I. E. M., E. H. Sutanudjaja, L. P. H. Van Beek, and M. F. P. Bierkens (2015), A high-resolution global-scale groundwater model, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19(2), 823–837, doi:10.5194/hess-19-823-2015.

Huscroft, J., T. Gleeson, J. Hartmann, and J. Börker (2018), Compiling and Mapping Global Permeability of the Unconsolidated and Consolidated Earth: GLobal HYdrogeology MaPS 2.0 (GLHYMPS 2.0), Geophys. Res. Lett., 45(4), 1897–1904, doi:10.1002/2017GL075860.

Perrone, D., and S. Jasechko (2017), Dry groundwater wells in the western United States, Environ. Res. Lett., 12(10), 104002, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aa8ac0.

 

Socio-hydrology meets Broadway: Can we survive drought if we stop using the toilet?

Socio-hydrology meets Broadway: Can we survive drought if we stop using the toilet?

Post by Samuel Zipper, postdoctoral fellow at both McGill University and the University of Victoria, in Canada. You can follow Sam on Twitter at @ZipperSam.

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How can society best cope with water scarcity?

With Cape Town on the verge of being the first major city to run out of water (a topic for a future post here on Water Underground), this is a question on the minds of many water managers and scientists within the emerging fields of socio-hydrology and socio-hydrogeology.

Low levels in Cape Town, South Africa’s reservoir system. Image source: University of Cape Town News.

Recently, my wife & I had the opportunity to see a more musical exploration of this question at the Langham Court Theatre’s production of Urinetown here in Victoria. This satirical musical envisions a future in which severe droughts have limited water supplies to the point that government (controlled by a corporation) decides the best way to conserve water is to charge people to use the restroom, thus limiting both direct and indirect human consumption (by people drinking less and flushing the toilet less, respectively).

As a scientist, I naturally found myself wondering: how effective would this tactic be?

Fortunately, the data exist to give us at least a rough approximation. Globally, only about 10% of water is used in households; the vast majority (about 70%) goes to agriculture. Once the water reaches your household, however, Urinetown may have a point; in an average US household, toilets are the largest water user, averaging ~1/4 of domestic water use (33 gallons per household per day). Since the US has among the largest per-capita water use of any country, we can use this number as an upper bound for a back-of-envelope calculations: globally, if we collectively stopped flushing toilets today, we’d reduce water use by a maximum of 2.5%.

In contrast, switching to diets with less animal protein (particularly beef) can have a far greater impact, saving well over 10% – it takes 660 gallons of water to make a burger, equivalent to about 180 flushes of a standard toilet (see the water footprint of various foods here). However, water is inherently a local issue – most of the water that goes into your burger was used to grow crops, potentially far away from wherever you live, and does not consume local water resources. Also, the numbers we used for the above calculations have a lot of local variability, with up to ~1/3 of total water use in Europe and Central Asia in the household.

Percentage of indoor water use by different fixtures. Source: Water Research Foundation.

So overall, does the math add up for Urinetown? At a global scale, reducing agricultural water use through improvement in irrigation practices and changes in diet is going to have a much bigger impact. Locally, however, toilets do use a lot of water and restricting their use during times of crisis is a smart approach – and Cape Town has had an “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” recommendation since September. Replacing your toilet with a high-efficiency fixture can help as well – many cities and states have rebate programs to help reduce the costs of this switch.

And how does it turn out for the residents of Urinetown? To answer that question, you’ll have to see the show yourself. Urinetown had a three year run on Broadway, including winning three Tony Awards, and is now a popular choice for theatres all around the world.

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Sam Zipper is an ecohydrologist. His main research focuses broadly on interactions between vegetation and the water cycle, with a particular interest in unintended or indirect impacts of land use change on ecosystems resulting from altered surface and subsurface hydrological flowpaths. You can find out more about Sam by going to his webpage at: samzipper.weebly.com.

Happy birthday plate tectonics!

Happy birthday plate tectonics!

Post by Elco Luijendijk, a junior lecturer, and David Hindle, lecturer and head of geodynamic modelling, both at the Department of Structural Geology and Geodynamics at the University of Göttingen, in Germany.

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As we’ve firmly moved into 2018, we can say happy 50th birthday to one of the most revolutionary scientific theories of the last century: plate tectonics. Here we discuss the birth of plate tectonics and what it means for hydrogeology.

Plate tectonic theory explains the how the Earth’s surface is formed and how it consists of rigid plates on top of a layer that is called the asthenosphere and that behaves like a slow-moving liquid. The plates move around, collide and subduct beneath each other. Plate tectonics successfully explains many features of the surface of the Earth, such as mountain belts at the collision zones of plates, ocean basins at places where plates move apart and the concentration of earthquakes near plate boundaries. For instance it is quite easy to recognize the boundaries of tectonic plates if you look at the earthquake distribution in Figure 2.

Plate tectonics birthday cake, showing one tasty tectonic plate (left) subducting below another (right). Source: http://sara-geologicventures.blogspot.de/2012/05/cake-subduction-zone.html

Actually, depending on your definition either 2017 or 2018 is the 50th birthday of plate tectonics. The story why this is the case is a bit complex. Jason Morgan first presented the theory at meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in 1967. However, the first paper on the mathematical principle of the movement of tectonic plates was published in the same year by McKenzie and Parker (1967). Jason Morgan’s paper (Morgan 1968) is the first one to clearly demonstrate the global geometry of all the major tectonic plates, but had got delayed by peer-review for over a year. The development of plate tectonics involved many scientist and several earlier theories, such as seafloor spreading (which showed that ocean basins were split in two halves that were moving apart). There are surprisingly few books available on the history of plate tectonics, but one that is definitely an enjoyable read is “Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History Of The Modern Theory Of The Earth” (Oreskes 2003). It is a fascinating collection of stories by most of the scientist that were involved in the development of the theory.

Figure 2 Plate boundaries on earth, with earthquakes > M6.5, since the year 2000, and with selected relative motion arrows for plate pairs – the motions shown are always those between adjacent plates. Double arrows imply spreading – moving apart of plates, mostly on oceanic ridges, while single arrows imply either strike slip motion (California and the San Andreas fault for instance) or convergence (either subduction of an oceanic plate under a continental one – under the Andes mountains in South America as an example, or collision of two continental plates as between India and Eurasia in the Himalayas for instance). Earthquakes are clearly concentrated on plate boundaries. This map was made using GMT (http://gmt.soest.hawaii.edu/).

Ok, that is all very interesting, but you could ask the question: what does plate tectonics have to do with Water Underground?

In some regards not much. We can often ignore plate tectonics when looking at groundwater flow. Hydrogeologists tend to study groundwater supply and pollution on human time and space scales. Because plates move very slowly (up to tens of mm per year), on short timescales the subsurface can be regarded as static layer of rocks that does not move or deform. However, most of the groundwater on our planet is old, and has infiltrated to the subsurface ten thousand years ago or earlier (Jasechko et al. 2017). The oldest groundwater that we know is 1.5 billion years old and was found at 2 km depth in a mine in near Timmins, Canada (Holland et al. 2013). Over its long history it was part of ancient and long disintegrated continents and the plate that holds this water moved from an area south of the equator to its present position.

Plate tectonics affect groundwater. Especially in deeper (several kilometers) parts of the crust, the groundwater pressure, salinity and composition that we encounter today are often the result of a long geological history. Over time, sediments were added and removed by erosion, layers were compacted, folded and/or faulted, which affected groundwater flow and its interaction with the rocks that contain it.

The reverse is also true: groundwater affects plate tectonics. This is perhaps most important near mid-ocean ridges, where two plates move apart, and new crust is being added to these plates all the time. There is abundant evidence for strong circulation of seawater through the subsurface, which cools the hot new crust, reacts with the rocks around it and changes the chemistry of the crust and the ocean. The most visible evidence are so-called black smokers (Figure 3), where hot (350 ˚C) water discharges into the ocean through fissures in the crust and carries along black plumes full of dissolved minerals. At the opposite end of the plates, the presence of water underground changes how easy or hard it is for one plate to subduct beneath another in a plate collision zone, as was discussed at a recent AGU conference (link to session), 50 years after the AGU conference where Jason Morgan presented his theory. On a smaller scale, faults that enable the stacking of rocks in plate collision zones (mountain belts) or the breaking apart of rocks in rift zones (where plates split up), are dependent on the presence of groundwater. Even before the advent of plate tectonics Hubbert and Rubey (1959), showed that water in fault zones can act as a kind of lubricant that enables two adjacent blocks of rocks to move past each other. Because this movement gives rise to earthquakes, groundwater may also play an important role in the earthquake cycle. This role is still heavily debated and is researched by drilling deep wells in faults at plate boundaries, such as at the San Andreas fault in California (Zoback et al. 2010) or the Nankai through (Hammerschmidt et al. 2013).

Without sufficient groundwater plate tectonics may not exist on our planet. The movement of tectonic plates depends on how easily the rocks below these plates can deform. At these depths, high pressures and temperatures promote the slow deformation of the crystals that make up the rocks at this depth. The mechanisms that cause the deformation of crystals are termed “creep”. Whether or not the rock contains water (in the form of -OH groups) affects creep: generally, “wet” minerals are up to a factor of 10 “softer” than “dry” ones. The actual physics and chemistry of how -OH affects and weakens different minerals is not entirely clear. Creep is also essential for the convection of the earth’s mantle, which controls the escape of heat from our planet’s interior and provides the energy to drive plate tectonics. Without convection, there would be no plate tectonics, so the presence of water throughout the earth’s crust, and its continued reintroduction to the earth’s mantle by the subduction of tectonic plates seems to be a key component driving the system, or at least, helping it to keep moving along.

There are many more links between groundwater and geologic processes, too many to cover in a short blog item like this. However, the current state of our understanding is summarized in a highly recommended book “Groundwater in geologic processes”. Many aspects of groundwater flow and its links with geological processes in newly formed, colliding or subducting plates are still uncertain and studied by hydrogeologists, which means that 50 years after the publication of the theory of plate tectonics, many discoveries still lie ahead.

Figure 3 A black smoker at the mid Atlantic ridge emitting hot groundwater into the ocean from newly formed oceanic crust. Copyright: MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen.

Links:

1: McKenzie and Parker (1967) https://www.nature.com/articles/2161276a0

2: Morgan (1968): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/JB073i006p01959/full

3: Oreskes (2003): https://www.routledge.com/Plate-Tectonics-An-Insiders-History-Of-The-Modern-Theory-Of-The-Earth/Oreskes/p/book/9780813341323

4: Jassechko et al. (2017): https://www.nature.com/articles/ngeo2943

5: AGU fall meeting session (2017): http://agu.confex.com/agu/fm17/meetingapp.cgi/Session/31184

6: Hubbert and Rubery (1959): https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/gsabulletin/article-lookup/70/2/115

7: Zoback et al. (2010): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2010EO220001/full

8: Hammerschmidt et al. (2013): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004019511300098X

9: Ingebritsen et al. (2006) Groundwater in geologic processes. http://www.cambridge.org/de/academic/subjects/earth-and-environmental-science/hydrology-hydrogeology-and-water-resources/groundwater-geologic-processes-2nd-edition?format=PB&isbn=9780521603218#RcR6adP330ESbBPk.97

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David Hindle (L) is a lecturer and the head of geodynamic modelling in the Department of Structural Geology and Geodynamics at the University of Göttingen, and Elco Luijendijk (R) is a junior lecturer also in the Department of Structural Geology and Geodynamics at the University of Göttingen.

An alternate career path for Groundwater Science-Engineering PhDs

An alternate career path for Groundwater Science-Engineering PhDs

Post by Jim Roy, Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

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A recent editorial in Nature highlighted the relative scarcity of academic positions available to graduating PhD students (Many junior scientists need to take a hard look at their job prospects; 25 October, 2017). It notes that “it has been evident for years that international science is training many more PhD students than the academic system can support”. Firm figures aren’t available, but the article suggests maybe < 5 % will land a full-time academic job. That number may be somewhat higher for Groundwater-related disciplines, but the point remains that many should “make plans for a life outside academic science.”

However, it’s not all doom and gloom; indeed the article goes on to state that “it is good for PhD students and postdocs to pursue careers outside academia. Many will find similar challenges and rewards in industry.” There are a lot of options for Groundwater PhDs in industry and the plethora of supporting consulting firms: in mining, oil and gas, tunnel and dam engineering, municipal water supply, and contaminated site remediation, to list a few. However, there is an additional career path to consider, especially if you want to continue doing research – the government scientist, like me.

According to Wikipedea: A government scientist is a “scientist employed by a country’s government, either in a research-driven job (for example J. Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project), or for another role that requires scientific training and methods.” I’ll be focusing on those that do research (encompassing science and engineering), at least for much of their work.  And in this blog, I’ll be comparing their job duties and conditions to that of the professor, the research job with which the majority of students and post-docs are most familiar and traditionally aiming for.  It’s what I thought I would be too, coming out of grad school. Now it’s been 10 years since I took up my position as a Research Scientist focusing on groundwater contamination/quality with Environment Canada (now Environment and Climate Change Canada) – enough time to have experienced the ups and downs of the Canadian economy and the changing of the governing party, with repercussions of both for federal science priorities and budgets. The discussion below is based largely on my own experience, with insight gleaned from talking with colleagues in other government agenciesa over the years. It’s also highly generalized; the exact situations will vary by country, agency, and even by individual scientist, and may change over time. But hopefully it’s good enough for a light-hearted introduction to this alternate career area.

So here goes – my Top 10 list of how a government scientist job is different than academia:

  1. Freedom

                All scientists want to do work that is meaningful, but not all scientists get to choose on what topic that work will focus. In general, government scientists undertake research on issues of government priority that will advise on federal policy, regulations, and management activities, or that will provide service to important national industries or the public. So their work should have a meaningful impact on their country, if not more broadly; they just don’t get to decide on the priority topics (with exceptions for certain agencies or programs). However, often these priority topics are general enough that there is some range of projects that can fit within them, giving the scientist some flexibility on their research focus. Also, by advising their management and government representatives of important topics, government scientists may influence the direction of government priorities. Also, a government scientist may be afforded some leeway to work on additional topics outside these priority areas with a small fraction of their time. Government research usually targets short- to intermediate-term achievements, as fits the common government election cycle. However, some priority topics may last for decades – see North American Great Lakes eutrophication and algal blooms – waxing and waning in importance with the severity of the problem (costs!) in relation to the other pressures on the government (the economy!). For those who choose this career path – beware, though, when government priorities change, your research area may have to change too.

                For academics, their options are typically much broader, encompassing everything between applied research with immediate implications to research so basic that nobody can predict what may eventually come of it. The caveat to this is that an academic’s research topic often has to be deemed important enough and applied enough for “someone” to fund it. Industry funding is usually quite applied. But even government funding agencies, which are usually the primary support for more basic academic research, are increasingly imposing greater direction over the acceptable topics of proposed research. So perhaps this extra freedom isn’t so vast in practice.

  1. Trading places?

                Many government scientists are appointed to one or more adjunct professor positions at universities where their academic collaborators reside. These could be at nearby universities or those across the globe, and these locations may change over a career. It isn’t a paid position, but allows for closer research ties, including the (co-)supervision of undergraduate and graduate students, which benefits both the university and the government agency. Such positions may also afford access to laboratory space on campus or to additional research funding (held at the university, but directed by the adjunct professor).

                I haven’t heard of a case of the opposite arrangement – adjunct government scientist – but it might exist. Academics may pop in and be given some office space and support during a sabbatical while collaborating with a government scientist, but they’re really just temporary squatters.  If anyone out there knows of such a situation, feel free to post below.

  1. No teaching ( 🙂 or  🙁 )

                An obvious difference, this can be viewed as good or bad news depending on how much you like it.  I enjoyed teaching while I was a grad student. Many scientists give guest lectures or even short-courses at local universities. I taught an entire hydrogeology course for a university colleague during his sabbatical – so this can be an option for some in government who have an interest. Not having required teaching does provide greater flexibility in scheduling your work (especially field trips) and leaves more time for research and/or other important activities, like playing hockey or “family life”.

  1. Professors have grad students; government scientists have technicians

                The model for academic research is based on students and post-docs (a team of them often) carrying out the primary duties of research under the supervision of their professor. Certainly there are exceptions where the professor carries out their own study, but generally they lack the time for this. However, professors may have technicians too. It’s common for some to hire current or past students as technicians for a few years after they graduate, while (senior) professors may have dedicated technicians.

                In contrast, the model for government scientists is to have one or more dedicated and highly-experienced technicians available to assist in their research. Separate analytical laboratory or field teams may also be available. Although, with tightening budgets this technical support seems to be dwindling. It’s also fairly common for post-doctoral fellows to be hired by government agencies to work with their scientists – I’ve worked closely with 2 post-docs over my 10 years at Environment and Climate Change Canada. And what’s more, through adjunct professor positions or just collaborations, government scientists may also work with and (co-)supervise students from a partner university, just not to the same extent as for the academics.

                Thus, there can be a fair bit of overlap between these two models, especially when collaborations extend between academics and government researchers; and this integration, I think, makes for better science all around.

  1. Both are sought out by regulators and policy-makers

                Government scientists might have the inside track to the ear of policy-makers, but advice from academics is often gathered via workshops and contracts for reviews and reports as well.  Sadly, in large departments especially, some bureaucrats may not realize they have internal expertise in an area like hydrogeology. Which leads us to the next point…

  1. Governments typically do a poorer job of selling/showcasing their scientists

                Academics have much more freedom to showcase themselves and their work to the public, the science community, and business/industry. This can be through personalized research web pages, starting a blog (like this one!), and greater freedom to speak to the media (depending on the presiding-government’s rules for their scientists).  They also tend to attend more scientific conferences, where they and their students can advertise their scientific wares to a range of audiences.

  1. No consulting on the side

                Not all professors consult, but many do, which can provide a boost in income and lead to funding or in-kind support opportunities for their research or to job opportunities for their students. I haven’t heard of any government agencies that allow their scientists to consult as a side profession. In part, they want all your time devoted to your job working for them; but it also runs into “conflict-of-interest” concerns.  Now that doesn’t mean you can’t have a side-job (e.g., selling pottery, repairing dishwashers, stand-up comedy, teaching Yoga), but it can’t relate to your science profession.

  1. Border-crossing restrictions

                Working on national (or state/provincial) priority research commonly means government scientists work predominantly on sites in their own country (region), unless inter-jurisdictional agreements are made to combine or share research expertise. In contrast, academics are able and encouraged to work at international sites, which can expand the range of research topics and potentially funding sources available to them.

  1. Less competition for funding (except when the coffers are bare)

                Much of my funding is internal, requiring much shorter (i.e., less onerous) proposals than is typical for my academic colleagues seeking funding through centralized national funding agencies (e.g., NSERC in Canada) or from industry partners. My proposals may still go through a competitive process, though, sometimes with external reviews.  How substantive this internal funding is compared to academic funding will depend on the agency, how science is viewed by the current government, the state of the economy, and the importance of the topic. When internal research budgets are tight, there may not be sufficient funding to go around, especially for those not working directly on key priorities. Of note, some government agencies allow their scientists who have adjunct status at a university to apply for the same set of grants as academics. Whether such proposals are frowned upon or judged differently by funding agencies is up for debate.

  1. Joy in their work

                Frustrations with too-much time devoted to administrative tasks and seeking funding are prevalent in both government and academic research areas. But still, the opportunity to do research on interesting, challenging, and important topics at the edge of our current scientific understanding brings enjoyment / fulfillment to both government scientists and academics. We all feel that slight quickening of the pulse when “the data is in” and we learn if the expected outcomes were realized or (better yet) something different (new!) might be going on.  It’s why we do what we do. In hydrogeology, there remains much to explore, especially at the inter-disciplinary mixing zones around the edges of our specialty. And we’ll need new concepts, new methods, and new connections to move our understanding forward. Scientists from academia and government and industry and other groups can all contribute to this quest. For graduating PhDs, hopefully this leaves you with multiple career path options for joining in the fun.

a In Canada, besides Environment and Climate Change Canada there are also PhD-holders doing groundwater-related research in Natural Resources Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the National Research Council. In the U.S., much great groundwater research is carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey, with research also carried out by other federal and state agencies. Many other countries have similar geological or environmental departments or agencies with PhDs doing some or much research.  You can look these up on the web, though often government scientist pages aren’t nearly as good as those for academia.

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Jim Roy is a Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada. His current research focuses on: groundwater contaminant impacts on surface waters and aquatic ecosystems, groundwater contributions of phosphorus to surface waters, potential leakage of Alberta oil sands tailings ponds to the Athabasca River, and groundwater and gas systems. Find out more about Jim by clicking on the links below.

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