groundwater systems

Water: underground source for billions could take more than a century to respond fully to climate change

Water: underground source for billions could take more than a century to respond fully to climate change

WaterUnderground post by Mark O. Cuthbert, Cardiff University; Kevin M. Befus, University of Wyoming, and Tom Gleeson, University of Victoria

Groundwater is the biggest store of accessible freshwater in the world, providing billions of people with water for drinking and crop irrigation. That’s all despite the fact that most will never see groundwater at its source – it’s stored naturally below ground within the Earth’s pores and cracks.

While climate change makes dramatic changes to weather and ecosystems on the surface, the impact on the world’s groundwater is likely to be delayed, representing a challenge for future generations.

Groundwater stores are replenished by rainfall at the surface in a process known as “recharge”. Unless intercepted by human-made pumps, this water eventually flows by gravity to “discharge” in streams, lakes, springs, wetlands and the ocean. A balance is naturally maintained between rates of groundwater recharge and discharge, and the amount of water stored underground.

Groundwater discharge provides consistent flows of freshwater to ecosystems, providing a reliable water source which helped early human societies survive and evolve.

When changes in climate or land use affect the rate of groundwater recharge, the depths of water tables and rates of groundwater discharge must also change to find a new balance.

Groundwater is critical to agriculture worldwide. Rungroj Youbang/Shutterstock

The time it takes for this new equilibrium to be found – known as the groundwater response time – ranges from months to tens of thousands of years, depending on the hydraulic properties of the subsurface and how connected groundwater is to changes at the land surface.

Estimates of response times for individual aquifers – the valuable stores of groundwater which humans exploit with pumps – have been made previously, but the global picture of how quickly or directly Earth’s groundwater will respond to climate change in the coming years and decades has been uncertain. To investigate this, we mapped the connection between groundwater and the land surface and how groundwater response time varies across the world.

The long memory of groundwater

We found that below approximately three quarters of the Earth’s surface, groundwater response times last over 100 years. Recharge happens unevenly around the world so this actually represents around half of the active groundwater flow on Earth.

This means that in these areas, any changes to recharge currently occurring due to climate change will only be fully realised in changes to groundwater levels and discharge to surface ecosystems more than 100 years in the future.

We also found that, in general, the driest places on Earth have longer groundwater response times than more humid areas, meaning that groundwater stores beneath deserts take longer to fully respond to changes in recharge.

Groundwater stores are ‘recharged’ by rainfall and ‘discharge’ into surface water bodies such as lakes. Studio BKK/Shutterstock. Edited by author.

In wetter areas where the water table is closer to the surface, groundwater tends to intersect the land surface more frequently, discharging to streams or lakes.

This means there are shorter distances between recharge and discharge areas helping groundwater stores come to equilibrium more quickly in wetter landscapes.

Hence, some groundwater systems in desert regions like the Sahara have response times of more than 10,000 years. Groundwater there is still responding to changes in the climate which occurred at the end of the last glacial period, when that region was much wetter.

Read MoreThe global race for groundwater speeds up to feed agriculture’s growing needs

In contrast, many low lying equatorial regions, such as the Amazon and Congo basins, have very short response times and will re-equilibrate on timescales of less than a decade, largely keeping pace with climate changes to the water cycle.

Geology also plays an important role in governing groundwater responses to climate variability. For example, the two most economically important aquifers in the UK are the limestone chalk and the Permo-Triassic sandstone.

Despite both being in the UK and existing in the same climate, they have distinctly different hydraulic properties and, therefore, groundwater response times. Chalk responds in months to years while the sandstone aquifers take years to centuries.

Global map of groundwater response times. Cuthbert et al. (2019)/Nature Climate Change, Author provided.

In comparison to surface water bodies such as rivers and lakes which respond very quickly and visibly to changes in climate, the hidden nature of groundwater means that these vast lag times are easily forgotten. Nevertheless, the slow pace of groundwater is very important for managing freshwater supplies.

The long response time of the UK’s Permo-Triassic sandstone aquifers means that they may provide excellent buffers during drought in the short term. Relying on groundwater from these aquifers may seem to have little impact on their associated streams and wetlands, but diminishing flows and less water could become more prevalent as time goes on.

This is important to remember when making decisions about what rates of groundwater abstraction are sustainable. Groundwater response times may be much longer than human lifetimes, let alone political and electoral cycles.The Conversation

Post written by:

Mark O. Cuthbert, Research Fellow & Lecturer in Groundwater Science, Cardiff University;

Mark Cuthbert is a Research Fellow and Lecturer in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. Mark’s work currently focuses on coupled hydrological-climate process dynamics in order to: understand groundwater sustainability; improve interpretations of terrestrial paleoclimate proxy archives;  and understand how Quaternary paleoenvironments influenced human evolution.


Kevin M. Befus, Assistant professor, University of Wyoming; 

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.



Tom Gleeson, Associate professor, University of Victoria

Tom Gleeson leads the Groundwater Science and Sustainability group in the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Victoria.  His research interests include groundwater sustainability, mega-scale groundwater systems, groundwater recharge and discharge and fluid flow around geologic structures. Tom is also the founder of this blog, WaterUnderground.



This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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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.


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.


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:



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









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.


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.


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.


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


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.

A Tanzanian groundwater safari through the last 2 million years

A Tanzanian groundwater safari through the last 2 million years

Post by Mark Cuthbert, Research Fellow and Lecturer at Cardiff University, in the United Kingdom, and by Gail Ashley, Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University, in the United States.


During the dry season, Lake Masek in Northern Tanzania (see map) is a lovely place to be if you’re a hippo or a flamingo, but for humans it’s an inhospitable environment. We were on ‘safari’ (a scientific one of course, but the wildlife was a massive bonus! Photo 1-left) to try and better understand the distribution of freshwater in this dryland landscape.

Map: Locations on our groundwater safari in Northern Tanzania.

Watching our backs in case of predators, we ventured out of the safety of our Land Rover for Gail to sample the lake water, as salt blew in drifts around us off the desiccated edges of the lake bed (Photo 1-right). It was very salty and not potable for humans. All the streambeds that run into the lake were dry and yet our Masai guide told us that nearby we could find freshwater all year round.

Photo 1: (L) The amazing wildlife in the Ngorongoro Crater & (R) Saline-alkaline Lake Masek.

Intrigued, we set off around the edge of the lake and as we came over the crest of a small ridge were met with the most remarkable site – 1000s of cattle and goats queuing up for water from pools on the edge of the dry river valley just downstream of the lake. We waited for the queues of animals to die down and asked permission from the local guardians of the water source to investigate (Photo 2). The pools turned out to be fed from groundwater flowing out of rocks at the side of the valley. In contrast to the salty water from the adjacent lake, these springs were fresh and potable. We think the water is very old having originally fell as rain on the flanks of the ancient Ngorongoro Highlands (see map) before flowing slowly under gravity through layers of volcanic rocks 10’s of km to the springs. Because there’s so much groundwater stored in these rocks, and because they are not very permeable, the water seeps out quite slowly. So the springs keep running all through even the longest droughts and are vital water supplies for local people.

Photo 2: Asking permission to sample at Eremet springs

We travelled east along the same dry river valley in which we’d encountered the springs. Here the river, which only flows during the wet season, has cut itself into a steep ravine called Olduvai Gorge. We walked down the side of the gorge travelling back in time ~2 million years, the rocks and sediments around us telling a well-documented story of how the environment has changed over that time. Many exciting fossil discoveries have also been made in the gorge including some of our oldest human ancestors (Photo 3-left). For us one of the most interesting discoveries was geological evidence of ancient springs (Photo 3-right) found in the same layers as fossil human ancestors and stone tools which Gail has documented going all the way back to nearly 2 million years ago (read more here). There are clues from the surrounding sediments that there was a lake nearby but it was salty and alkaline, and we think the springs would have kept flowing for 100s or even 1000’s of years during persistently drier periods experienced in the past (read more here).

The springs that were flowing in the Olduvai area 2 million years ago, just like the springs on the margins of present day Lake Masek, would have been the only freshwater for miles around and vital for sustaining life during dry periods. Since there are hundreds of freshwater springs dotted around present day drylands in the East African rift system, we can hypothesise that during dry periods in the past, similar locations would have acted as ‘hydro-refugia’ – places where animals could find the necessary freshwater for survival in an otherwise dry landscape. In dry periods there would be lots of competition for these resources and populations would have become isolated from each other for quite long periods. During wetter periods springs would have enabled our ancestors and other species to move long distances across the East African landscape and beyond, acting like stepping stones connecting river corridors and lakes and enabling populations of different species to encounter one another (read more here). Groundwater was likely therefore an important control on the movement and evolution of humans in this environment.

Photo 3: (L) Paranthropus boisei (‘Zinj’) hominin skull found at Olduvia gorge (Photo Credit: Tim White PhD, Human Evolution Research Center, University of California, Berkeley) & (R) Mark Cuthbert next to a tufa (calcium carbonate) deposit thought to be evidence of groundwater discharging near the site that the Zinj fossil was found.

Groundwater is often ‘out of sight and out of mind’. Our safari gave us a glimpse into its importance in sustaining life in a dryland environment not just in the present day, but also for our ancestors going back at least 2 million years through some climatically turbulent periods. The challenge going forward is how that groundwater resource can be protected to make sure it’s there when it’s needed in the face of an uncertain climatic future.

Acknowledgements: it has been a massive privilege to be able to explore this landscape and ponder how freshwater has shaped life here over millions of years. Particular thanks to our guides Joseph Masoy and Simon Matero, logistical support from Charles Musiba (LOGIFS – Laetoli-Olduvai Gorge International Field Camp) and TOPPP (The Olduvai Paleoanthropological and Paleoecological Project), our hosts at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, and all our collaborators on the papers cited.


Mark Cuthbert is a Research Fellow and Lecturer in the
School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. Mark’s work currently focuses on coupled hydrological-climate process dynamics in order: to understand & quantify groundwater sustainability; to improve interpretations of terrestrial paleoclimate proxy archives; to understand Quaternary paleoenvironments & how they influenced our evolution as a species. Read more on Mark by clicking on the links below.

TwitterResearch website




Gail M. Ashley is a Distinguished Professor and Undergraduate Program Director of Quaternary Studies Program at Rutgers University, in the United States. Gail studies modern physical processes and deposits of glacial, fluvial, lacustrine, arid landscapes, and use this information to interpret paleoenvironments. Read more about Gail by going to her research website.

Community advice to young hydrologists, Part 1

Community advice to young hydrologists, Part 1

We at Water Underground loved reading Young Hydrologic Society’s post titled “Community advice to young hydrologists” – an advice column written by a network of established scientists in the field. We appreciated the column so much, in fact, that we have decided to re-blog the post to you (with YHS’s consent, of course). We’ve split up their post by question, and have added in hyperlinks to all contributors and related material (as has always been our inclination). Happy reading!


Question: What book or paper has been most influential to your career and why?

Groundwater by Freeze and Cherry – this textbook, now out of print, was a critical reference as I began my graduate training in hydrogeology and I still refer to it today.

Jean Bahr (University of Wisconsin)








I can think of no single one.  However, papers that were a combination of field observations and clever analyses leading to new insights always are intriguing.  Papers which I find of little value are those that propose a new modeling approach with little to no field verification, or which use existing models to reach some conclusion.  For example, we seem to be seeing a proliferation of papers using complex models to highlight some “new” effect of climate change on the hydrologic cycle, with no grounding in hindcasts. (See this, also) The musings of Keith Beven always have been insightful, including his Advice to a Young Hydrologist.

Jerad Bales (CUAHSI)



I can’t identify single “most influential” books or papers – I learned early to read as widely as possible, and not just within narrow/specific research problems of direct interest. I have been inspired by a range of articles – including books on philosophy, history of physics, etc. – which broadened my approach and ways of looking at a given problem. Indeed, some of my most influential work developed from studying methods and approaches in statistical physics and physical chemistry.

Brian Berkowitz (Weizmann Institute of Science)



The most important influence was a person – Mike Kirkby and particularly the undergraduate course on quantitative hydrology he taught at the University of Bristol when I was taking my degree there (later, I would do a post-doc with him at Leeds that resulted in the development of Topmodel). That gave me a lot of reading to do – but it was probably not the hydrological reading that had most influence, but rather the papers on theoretical geomorphology starting with Horton BGSA 1945, then picked up by Kirkby, Frank Ahnert and others in the late 1960s. I struggled to understand them (at the time I wanted to be a geomorphologist but I have never quite finished getting the water part right) but they left me the idea that it was possible to theorize about environmental processes and systems in approximate but useful ways.

During my PhD the most influential paper was undoubtedly Freeze and Harlan JH 1968, and the papers about the field site I was applying my model to by Darrell Weyman (HSB 1970, IAHS 1973). If I had talked to him a little more (he was doing his PhD at Bristol while I was an undergraduate) or read those papers more carefully, then I might have been more realistic in my PhD modelling.

The most important book at that time was Zienkowicz, Finite Element Modelling (that was the technique I was trying to master). Hillslope Hydrology edited by Kirkby was also important but came later.

Keith Beven (Lancaster University)


Paper: Scale of Fluctuation of rainfall models by I. Rodriquez-Iturbe. It formed the basis for my MSc research that I did during 11 months in Davis California (As a Dutch Student from Wageningen). It was extremely difficult stuff, but I kept on it and it understanding gave me the stamina to really dig into a subject. It was the basis for my first paper entitled “Analytically derived runoff models based on rainfall point processes” in WRR. To obtain better background I also read in depth the influential.

Book: Random Functions and Hydrology by R. Bras and I. Rodriquez-Iturbe.

Marc Bierkens (Utrecht University)




Dooge’ 1986 Looking for hydrologic laws in WRR. This paper gives a broad perspective on science, including scales.

Günter Blöschl (TU Vienna)









Konrad and Booth (2005), Hydrologic changes in urban streams and their ecological significance, American Fisheries Society Symposium, 47:157-177.  This paper is a bit outside my area of expertise, but I think the linkage they make between physically measurable streamflow changes and stream ecology represents a fundamental shift in thinking from engineering hydrology to more of an eco-hydrology perspective.  They illustrated that we need to go beyond analyzing just changes in peak flow or low flows (or fixed percentiles), to look at more derived metrics that better capture hydrologic regime change.

Laura Bowling (Purdue University)




That is a very hard question. As a Geography undergraduate student, I had to write a particular essay on the “all models are wrong” theme and this involved critiquing two papers which completely changed my worldview about models and modelling: Konikow and Bredehoeft’s 1992 ‘Ground-water models cannot be validated’ Advances in Water Resources 15(1):75-83.  and Beven’s 1989 ‘Changing ideas in hydrology – the case of physically-based models’ Journal of Hydrology.

But in the last year, I would say it has been Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2016) who is a gifted and talented scientist and writer and has the knack of intertwining the natural world with tales of remaining brave in your career. I wish I’d had the opportunity to read it earlier in my career.

Hannah Cloke (University of Reading)


Ecological and General Systems – H.T. Odum. This book explores general systems theory in the context of ecosystem behaviors. It is holistic, comprehensive, and full of important insights about the structure and dynamics of systems.

Matthew Cohen (University of Florida)





It is a novel by Milan Kundera: “Slowness”. My natural tendency is to rush up, be as fast as possible, quickly fix things… Yet, speed often leads to miserable outcomes. Many lines of Kundera’s book are still in my mind, and they work as a continuous reminder for me that only slowness allows thoughtful consideration, serious reflection, and appreciation of reality. Realizing this has strongly influenced my academic career as it made me focus on the quality (and not the quantity) of my work.

Giuliano Di Baldassarre (Uppsala University)



Several hydrogeology-related texts were very helpful for me.  These include some of Mary Hill’s papers, John Doherty’s PEST manual (as much for the philosophy as the instruction), some of Jasper Vrugt’s early papers, and work by both Wolfgang Novak and Steve Gorelick on measurement design. The real recommendation would be to find authors that you enjoy and read as much of their work as possible – in this category, I would add Shlomo Neuman, Randy Hunt, Hoshin Gupta, Dani Or, Keith Beven and Graham Fogg. I am sure that I am forgetting more than I have listed. I think it is equally important to read broadly. Rather than provide a list, I’ll encourage you to look at my recent paper in Ground Water (Sept 2016) for some suggestions!

Ty Ferré (The University of Arizona)




Book:  Groundwater Hydrology by David Keith Todd, 1st edition, 1959. As a 3rd-year undergraduate in hydrology at the University of New Hampshire in 1973, this book (and course by Francis Hall) kindled my interest in groundwater and completely changed my career path, which previously was essentially an aimless sleepwalk through my major in mathematics.

Paper/report:  Kaiser, W. R., Johnston, J. E., and Bach, W. N.. 1978, Sand-body geometry and the occurrence of lignite in the Eocene of Texas: The University of Texas at Austin, Bureau of Economic Geology Geological Circular 78-4, 19 p.  This paper demonstrated in stunning detail how modern borehole geophysical data together with understanding of the geologic genesis of sedimentary deposits could be used to create unprecedented subsurface maps of aquifer/aquitard system heterogeneity and structure. This led me down the long path of better integrating groundwater hydrology and geologic depositional systems.

Graham Fogg (UC Davis)


My interests have been in predictive hydrometeorology. The following were influential books at the start of my carrier in the late 70s and early 80s: Dynamic Hydrology by Eagleson; by Wallace and Hobbs; Applied Optimal Estimation by Gelb (ed).  These represented the fields of hydrology, meteorology, and estimation theory with applications to prediction, and were the necessary pillars to build predictive hydrometeorology.

Konstantine Georgakakos (Hydrologic Research Center in San Diego)






Haitjema and Mitchell-Bruker (2005) which taught me to think of groundwater as a process that interacts with topography, climate and geology in complex but predictable ways.

Tom Gleeson (University of Victoria)









The paper that has been most influential to my career is most certainly  “Johnston, P. R., and D. H. Pilgrim (1976), Parameter optimization for  watershed models, Water Resources Research, 12(3), 477–486. I read this paper during my graduate work in the early 1980’s and was intrigued by their report that “A true optimum set of (parameter) values was not found in over 2 years of full-time work concentrated on one watershed, although many apparent optimum sets were readily obtained.”

On the one hand this paper clearly identified an important problem that needed to be addressed. On the other (as I often remark during talks on the subject), I think it was remarkable as an example of a paper reporting the apparent “failure” of the researchers to achieve their goals … how often do we see people reporting their failures in the literature these days :-). More of this kind of work – reporting a scientific study and accurately reporting both successes and failures … but especially failures … is critically important to the progress of science, so that people can both contribute to solutions and also avoid unsuccessful forays down paths already tried.

In any case, the paper clearly pointed me towards an important problem that led to me adopting a path of research over the past decades, which led to the development of the SCE and SCEM  optimization algorithms (and indeed a whole field of optimization developments), studies into impacts of model structural deficiencies, multi-criteria methods for parameter estimation, the diagnostic model identification approach, and more recently the Information Theoretic approach.

The 1990 paper by Michael Celia et al on the numerical solution of Richards equation, recommended to me by Philip Binning at the beginning of my Honours Project at Newcastle Uni. This paper made a big impression on me because it provided a very clear exposition of how to solve a challenging modelling problem – and played a bigly role in getting me interested in research.

Dmitri Kavetski (University of Adelaide)


The Ecological Studies Series, published by Springer, was the most influential in my career because several books published in the Series (e.g., Forest Hydrology and Ecology at Coweeta edited by Swank and Crossley and Analysis of Biogeochemical Cycling Processes in Walker Branch Watershed edited by Johnson and Van Hook) sparked my interest in forest hydrology and biogeochemistry. In tandem with the superb mentorship of Prof. Stanley Herwitz (Clark University), I decided to embark upon a career as a forest hydrologist as a sophomore in college. I never looked back.

Delphis Levia (University of Delaware)





The papers of the series “Plants in water-controlled ecosystems” (2001, Advances in Water Resources 24), by Laio, Porporato, Ridolfi, and Rodriguez-Iturbe have been among the first and most influential I have read. Their clean, analytical approach to the complex interactions among vegetation, soil, and climate remains deeply inspiring. As an example of inter-disciplinary work (actually outside hydrology), I would like to mention the book by Sterner and Elser (2002) “Ecological stoichiometry. The biology of elements from molecules to the biosphere” (Princeton University Press) – a great example of how integrating knowledge from various sources around a common theme can yield deeper understanding and perhaps even lay the foundation of a new discipline.

Stefano Manzoni (Stockholm University)



The Hewlett and Hibbert 1967 conference paper “Factors affecting the response of small watersheds to precipitation…” is perhaps the best paper ever written in hydrology. For a full homage, please look here. The paper is field-based, theory focused and a blend of bottom-up and top-down research, before that was even ‘a thing’. It inspired me in my graduate research in the 1980s; I continued to read it and ponder it in my first years as a professor, as I strived to follow in Hewlett’s footsteps. He was my mentor even though he retired before I could ever meet him.

Jeff McDonnell (U Saskatchewan)




 In general, the books that have been most influential to me refer to sister disciplines. The reason is that I found illuminating to study methods and models used in statistics and economics for the purpose of applying them to hydrology for the first time. Thus, the most influential book to me has been “Statistics for long-memory processes”, by Jan Beran. The very reason is that I found there a detailed explanation of models that were useful to get to target with my Ph.D. thesis. 

Alberto Montanari (University of Bologna)



Chamberlin TC. 1890. The method of multiple working hypotheses. Science 15: 92-96 (reprinted in Science 148: 754–759 [1965]). I read this paper as part of a second-year course in Archaeology, which I took as an elective in my undergraduate program. Although the writing style is somewhat archaic, this article introduced me to the value of hypothesis-based thinking in science and the need to avoid favouring a pet hypothesis or model. It is instructive also to read the many follow-up essays to gain a broader perspective on hypothesis-based research and, more broadly, the “scientific method.”

Dan Moore (University of British Columbia)





I think I was more influenced by my peers, colleagues, mentors, supervisors and friends as I learn better through discussions and challenges. One of the more memorable papers is one of Manning (Manning, R. (1891). “On the flow of water in open channels and pipes,” Transactions ofthe Institution of Civil engineers of Ireland.) and it’s associated history. In this paper he actually suggested a far more ‘complex’ formulation than the formula which is today widely known as the Manning equation – history has it that it was never adopted widely as well as many subsequent more more sophisticated formulations. Science doesn’t work linear and we are sometimes less rational or objective (if the latter is actually possible) than we believe.

Florian Pappenberger (ECMWF)


“Show me a person who has read a thousand books and I’ll show you my best friend; show me a person who has read but one and I will show you my worst enemy.” I have been influenced by many and I can’t say one is *the* most influential or important alone.  At the moment, I am reflecting on (McCuen RH. 1989. Hydrologic Analysis and Design. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs.) As far as being a hydrology textbook it is not particular special, but it is written extremely clearly with a lot of good step-by-step workflows.  Most importantly, the book integrates throughout its whole development the concept of analysis versus synthesis, and this has been central to how I approach my research.  We do both analysis and synthesis.

Gregory Pasternack (UC Davis)


This is very difficult to say. I must admit that my academic work started from engineering practice and I only started reading the international literature very late in my career. But a book that has been very influential to me was the book by Fischer et al. (1979) “Mixing in inland and coastal waters”. Fischer soon died in an accident after this book was published. The book introduced me to the fundamentals of mixing processes in estuaries, on which I had done substantial field research and had developed my own practical engineering method, which I still use, but which lacked a fundamental theoretical basis. I am still working on finding this fundamental basis, and Fischer’s book put me on that track.

Hubert Savenije (TU Delft)


It would be tough to answer what’s been the most influential to my career as a whole, but I could answer what was the most influential to my early career, and that was Menke’s Geophysical Data Analysis: Discrete Inverse Theory.  I labored through that book for years during my PhD. My copy has dog-eared pages and writing throughout as I tried to figure out inversion methods.  Finally getting my head around the mathematics of inversion really opened up some doors for me early on.  Davis’ Tools For Teaching also really helped me think about how to be as effective a teacher as I could be.

Kamini Singha (Colorado School of Mines)



Books are hardly ever influential once you are actually ‘in’ research. Early on, look for the best review articles in your field. They will ‘set the scene’ for you.

Keith Smettem (The University of Western Australia)






Opportunities in the hydrologic sciences”, National Academy Press. This landmark book which defined hydrology as a science appeared right at the start of my PhD. It provided a nice framework for my own research and that of my fellow PhD students in those days.

Remko Uijlenhoet (Wageningen University)





It is difficult to select one single work from the literature that has been influential over my entire career in groundwater flow and transport modeling.  But, there is one book that I used as a grad student that I still refer to today.  It is “Conduction of Heat in Solids” by Carslaw and Jaeger.  The book is a treatise on analytical solutions to diffusion equations.  The lesson for me is that knowledge from other disciplines (in this case thermal engineering) can be applied to problems in hydrology.  Another lesson is that we can learn a lot and gain important insights through wise approximations that have analytical solutions.

Al Valocchi (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)


Abramowitz & Stegun: Math is something you look up, not something you try to memorize.

Nick van de Giesen (TU Delft)






In hydrology, some of the most influential books for me have been Handbook of Hydrology (edited by David Maidment) and Principles of Environmental Physics (Monteith & Unsworth). These two books are so rich in physics, empirical equations, recipes, and references. Of course the times have changed and nowadays you can google almost anything, but some of the chapters in these books are so well written that I still regularly use them. They also have the benefit that they summarise areas of research where things haven’t actually changed too much since the 80ies – the physics we use haven’t become that much more sophisticated, and sometimes in fact less so; whereas the field measurements on which a lot of the empirical rules and equations are based generally also haven’t been added much to since.

Outside hydrology, some books that have made me think differently about the field and my research include

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (Johnson) – one of the first popular science books I read that made me think different (about ecohydrology)

The Sceptical Environmentalist (Lomborg) – I didn’t accept his reasoning but it was seductive and it forces you to really pick apart the logical and rhetorical flaws he uses.

Thinking, fast and slow (Kahneman) – which really made me realise the questionable quality of my analytical rigour and decisions in general (also those of anyone else, though!).

Albert van Dijk (Australian National University)


Physical Hydrology by Dingman and Elements of Physical Hydrology are both great textbooks. Why: just lots of “basics” well explained, emphasizing the need to understand PROCESSES.

Doerthe Tetzlaff (University of Aberdeen)



House at Pooh Corner, specifically, Chapter VI. In which Pooh invents a new game and Eeyore joins in.  The first paragraph is an awesome description of a classic watershed and affirms my theory that hydrology is truly everywhere… even on Mars.  Indeed, the search for “life” has largely been a search for “water.”

Todd Walter (Cornell University)





Comparative hydrology, edited by Malin Falkenmark and Tom Chapman (1989). This book is one of the first to examine global hydrology phenomena. It asserts that a comprehensive and systematic description of hydrological processes is (i) possible (ii) not too complicated. Until then I’d thought the task was impossible, so I found the approach inspirational for my research.

Ross Woods (University of Bristol)

Of Karst! – short episodes about karst

Of Karst! – short episodes about karst

Post by Andreas Hartmann Assistant Professor in Hydrological Modeling and Water Resources at the University of Freiburg.


Episode 3 – Learning about karst by … KARST IN THE MOVIES!

Before writing about karst hydrology in “Of Karst! Episode 4”, I have been urged to present some more visual information on karst landforms. Of Karst! Episode 1 focused on the abundance of hilarious karst landforms in nature. This episode focusses more on the appearance of karst features in famous movies and TV programs that may be familiar to some of us, although we may not have watched them through the eyes of a karst fanatic at the time.

In the next episode, we follow the path of the water from the karstic surface with karstic towers and dolines, through caves and conduits, to spectacular karst springs where waters emerge to the surface.

Movie makers have their reasons to pick spectacular landscapes for their stories and, Of Karst!, those landscapes are crowded with karst features. Let’s begin with James Bond. Created in the 70s, “The Man with the Golden Gun” finds a spectacular showdown just in front of a lovely tower karst at the Khao Phing Kan island in Thailand. Tower karst is a karst landform that is, characterized by residual hills of limestone rising from a flat plain or the ocean.

Figure 1: Bonds‘ duel with villain Scaramanga in front of a tower karst rock (Khao Phing Kan, Thailand; http://www.criminalelement.com, http://www.marinaaonang.com)

Similar landforms were chosen as scenery for a recent remake of the King Kong saga. Fighting with intruders and evil monsters from the deep subsurface (karst caves?), Kong had the pleasure living on the beautiful Cat Ba Island in Northern Vietnam, whose characteristic landscape evolved due to the strong dissolution of limestone.

Figure 2: Silhouette of Kong between the Tower Karst mountains of Cat Ba Island located at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam (https://c1-zingpopculture.eb-cdn.com.au, http://www.baolau.com).

The opposite landform to tower karst landforms are karstic dolines, which occur commonly as funnel shaped depressions on the surface, also formed by carbonate rock dissolution. These depressions do not only funnel the water downwards to the subsurface, but also create favorable conditions for the installation of (very) large radio telescopes. The largest of those was built a couple of years ago in China but a similarly impressive one can be found in Puerto Rico, where James Bond had to deal with his evil competitor Trevelyan in “Goldeneye”.

Figure 3: Bond fighting with evil Trevelyan in Goldeneye high above the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico that was built just in the middle of a karst doline (https://i.pinimg.com, http://www.si-puertorico.com).

Underneath the tower karst and dolines, karst dissolution creates wide networks of karstic caves and conduits. With increasing dissolution of the carbonate rock, these features may also emerge at the surface, which was probably the case for the Azure Window at Malta. This karst landform was chosen as the background of a conversation of the famous Khaleesi and her spouse Drogo in “Game of Thrones”. Unfortunately, this amazing land form is not available for further movies as it was recently destroyed by a storm.

Figure 4: Khaleesi speaking to her beloved Drogo in Game of Thrones in front of the Azure Window in Malta (http://nypost.com).

Deeper in the subsurface, the famous Devetàshka cave in Bulgaria set the stage for a dramatic showdown in “The Expendables 2”, when Stalone’s plane crashed through the cave entrance that used to be the exit of groundwater flows emanating from karst. Imagine the tremendous amounts of water filling the karst system over thousands of years that are capable of forming a cave that can (almost) host an entire airplane!

Figure 5: Stalone’s plane crashing into the Devetàshka karstic cave in Bulgaria in The Expendables 2 (www.huffpost.com, www.wikipedia.org).

Due to the formation of dolines, caves and channels, karst springs are usually quite large in terms of their discharge. They also provide amazing sets for fantasy movies. Even though the springs of the St. Beatus Caves in Switzerland only inspired Tolkien for the scenery of the Rivendell, the town of the elves, their similarity is obvious.

Figure 6: Elves’ town Rivendell in Lord of the Rings, whose scenery was inspired by the karst spring of the St Beatus caves in Switzerland (http://www-images.theonering.org, http://tilomitra.com).

This movie-based tour through karst systems may have given you an impression how rainfall becomes discharge in karst systems. Of Karst!, Episode 4, will combine this impression with the hydrological, and more scientific point of view. It will speak to the complexity of these specific surface and subsurface land forms, and elaborate on why exploring and understanding these processes is worthwhile.



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

Groundwater organic matter: carbon source or sink?

Groundwater organic matter: carbon source or sink?

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


We know a lot about the carbon cycle, right? Increased carbon dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution have perturbed the carbon cycle. This has led to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and climate change.

Not all this extra carbon accumulates in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Carbon sequestration is also occurring, for example in the oceans and terrestrial biosphere. All the carbon fluxes and stores on the planet must balance. In recent years there has been a hunt within the terrestrial system to quantify some missing carbon, such as the particulate organic carbon in river systems and dissolved organic carbon in glaciers.

So, what about groundwater? Could this be a previously unrecognised source or sink of carbon? We already know that the global volume of groundwater of 1.05 x 1019 litres is the world’s biggest source of freshwater. But groundwater natural organic carbon concentrations are low: typically, 1 part per million (ppm). This means that the global groundwater organic carbon store is just 10.5 x1015 g. For comparison, rivers are estimated to sequester this amount in just four years. Basically, there’s no significant store of organic carbon in groundwater.

But hold, on, this raises another puzzle, which is: where has all the organic carbon gone? Groundwater is recharged from rivers and from rainfall. Rivers have much more dissolved organic carbon than the 1 ppm found in groundwater. And the recharge from rainfall passes through the soil. And soil leachates also have much higher dissolved organic carbon concentrations than groundwater. So, despite the high concentrations of organic matter in the soil and rivers, most of this organic matter is ‘lost’ before reaching the groundwater. Is it biologically processed (and therefore a potential source of carbon dioxide)? Or is it sorbed to mineral surfaces (and therefore a potential sink of carbon)?  Most likely, both processes occur in competition.

Groundwater organic matter: a carbon source or sink? We don’t know. But a few groups are working on the puzzle. For example, our group at UNSW Sydney is collecting groundwater samples and measuring organic carbon sorption to minerals, and microbial use. In the USA, groundwater data has been mined to understand the rate of loss of organic carbon in groundwater. This December, river and groundwater experts come together at the AGU Fall Meeting to share our understanding. Not least because surface and groundwater are interconnected systems.

Collecting groundwater samples to understand whether organic matter is a carbon source or sink. Long field days at the UNSW Wellington Research Station mean the final sample is often collected at dusk.



Andy Baker is the Director of Research and UNSW’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences. His research interests include hydrology, hydrogeology, cave and karst research, paleoclimatology, and isotope and organic and inorganic geochemistry. You can find out more information about Andy at any of the links below:

Research profile | Twitter | Facebook

Western water wells are going dry

Western water wells are going dry

Post by Scott Jasechko, Assistant Professor of Water Resources at the University of Calgary, in Canada, and by Debra PerronePostdoctoral Research Scholar at Stanford University, in the United States of America.


Wells are excavated structures, dug, drilled or driven into the ground to access groundwater for drinking, cleaning, irrigating, and cooling. We recently mapped groundwater wells across the 17 western states [1], where half of US groundwater pumping takes place. The western states contain aquifers key to United States food production, including the Central Valley of California and the central High Plains.

Millions of water wells exist in the western US, alone. About three-quarters of these wells have been constructed to supply water for household uses. Nearly one-quarter are used to irrigate crops or support livestock. A smaller fraction (<5 %) supports industry [1].

Western US water well depths vary widely (Fig. 1). The great majority (90%) of western US well depths range between 12m and 186m. The median western US well depth is 55m. Wells with depths exceeding 200m tap deep aquifers bearing fresh groundwater, such as the basal formations in the Denver Basin aquifer system, and the deeper alluvium in the California Central Valley. Shallow wells are common along perennial rivers, such as the Yellowstone, Platte, and Willamette Rivers.

Fig. 1. Western USA wells depths. Each point represents the location of a domestic, industrial or agricultural well. Blue colors indicate well depths of less than the median (55m), and red-black colors indicate well depths exceeding the median.

The wide variability of well depths across the west (Fig. 1) emphasizes the value of incorporating well depth data when assessing the likelihood that a groundwater well may go dry.

We know wells are going dry in the western US: journalists have identified numerous communities whose well-water supplies have been impacted by declining water tables [2-4]. While several studies have assessed adverse impacts of groundwater storage declines—such as streamflow depletion [5], coastal aquifer salinization [6], eustatic sea level rise [7], land subsidence [8]—few studies address the question: where have wells have gone dry?

Here we put forth a first estimate of the number of western US wells that have dried up (Fig. 2). We compared well depths to nearby well water level measurements made in recent years (2013-2015). We define wells that have likely gone dry as those with depths shallower than nearby measured well water levels (i.e., our estimate of the depth to groundwater).

Fig. 2. Schematic of a well that has gone dry (left) and a well with a bottom beneath the water table (blue) that may still produce groundwater (right). Even wells with submerged bottoms may be impacted by declines in groundwater storage because (i) pumps are situated above the well bottom, (ii) pumping induces a localized drawdown of the water table in unconfined portions of aquifer systems, (iii) well yields may decline if the hydrostatic pressure above the well base declines.

We estimate that between 0.5% and 6 % of western US wells have gone dry [1]. Dry wells are common in some areas where groundwater storage has declined, such as the California Central Valley [9] and parts of the central and southern High Plains aquifer [10,11]. We also identify lesser-studied regions where dry wells are abundant, such as regions surrounding the towns of Moriarty and Portales in central and eastern New Mexico.

Dry wells threaten the convenience of western US drinking water supplies and irrigated agriculture. Our findings emphasize that dry wells constitute yet another adverse impact of groundwater storage losses, in addition to streamflow depletion [5], seawater intrusion [6], sea level rise [7], and land subsidence [8].

Some wells are more resilient to drying (i.e., deeper) and others more vulnerable (i.e., shallower). We show that typical agricultural wells are deeper than typical domestic water wells in California’s Central Valley and Kansas’ west-central High Plains [1]. Our finding implies that reductions to groundwater storage will disproportionately dry domestic water wells compared to agricultural water wells, because domestic wells tend to be shallower in these areas. However, in other areas, such as the Denver Basin, typical domestic wells are deeper than typical agricultural wells. This comparison of different groundwater users’ well depths may help to identify water wells most vulnerable to groundwater depletion, should it occur.

So, what option does one have when a well goes dry?

Groundwater users whose wells have gone dry may consider a number of potential, short-term remedies, some of which may include (i) drilling a new well or deepening an existing well, (ii) connecting to alternative water sources (e.g., water conveyed by centralized infrastructure; water flowing in nearby streams), or (iii) receiving water delivered by truck.

Drilling new wells, deepening existing wells or connecting to alternate water supplies is often costly or unavailable, raising issues of inequality [12]. Receiving water deliveries via truck [13] is but a stopgap, one that may exist in parts of the western United States but not elsewhere, especially if high-use activities (e.g., irrigated agriculture) are intended [14]. In places where water table declines are caused primarily by unsustainable groundwater use, a long-term solution to drying wells may be managing groundwater to stabilize storage or create storage surpluses.

Realizing such sustainable groundwater futures where wells are drying up is a critical challenge. Doing so will be key to meeting household water needs and conserving irrigated agriculture practices for future generations [15]. We conclude that groundwater wells are going dry, highlighting that declining groundwater resources are impacting the usefulness of existing groundwater infrastructure (i.e., wells). The drying of groundwater wells could be considered more frequently when measuring the impacts of groundwater storage declines.


Scott Jasechko is an assistant professor of water resources at the University of Calgary. In November 2017, Scott joins the faculty of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Find out more about Scott’s research at : http://www.isohydro.ca




Debra Perrone is a postdoctoral research scholar at Stanford University with a duel appointment in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Woods Institute for the Environment. In November 2017, Debra will join the Environmental Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara as an assistant professor.

Find out more about Debra at: http://debraperrone.weebly.com




[1] Perrone D and Jasechko S 2017 Dry groundwater wells in the western United States. Environmental Research Letters 12, 104002 doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa8ac0. http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa8ac0

[2] James I, Elfers S, Reilly S et al 2015 The global crisis of vanishing groundwaters. in: USA Today https://www.usatoday.com/pages/interactives/groundwater/

[3] Walton B 2015 In California’s Central Valley, Dry wells multiply in the summer heat. in: Circle of Blue http://www.circleofblue.org/2015/world/in-californias-central-valley-dry-wells-multiply-in-the-summer-heat/

[4] Fleck J 2013 When the well runs dry. in: Albuquerque Journal https://www.abqjournal.com/216274/when-the-well-runs-dry.html

[5] Barlow P M and Leake S A 2012 Streamflow depletion by wells—understanding and managing the effects of groundwater pumping on streamflow. US Geological Survey Circular 1376 (Reston, VA: United States Geological Survey)

[6] Barlow P M, Reichard E G 2010 Saltwater intrusion in coastal regions of North America. Hydrogeol. J. 18 247-260.

[7] Konikow L F 2011 Contribution of global groundwater depletion since 1900 to sea-level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38 L17401

[8] Galloway D, Jones D R and Ingebritsen S E 1999 Land subsidence in the United States. US Geological Survey Circular 1182 (Reston, VA: United States Geological Survey)

[9] Famiglietti J S, Lo M, Ho S L, Bethune J, Anderson K J, Syed T H, Swenson S C, Linage C R D and Rodell M 2011 Satellites measure recent rates of groundwater depletion in California’s Central Valley. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38 L03403

[10] McGuire V L 2014 Water-level Changes and Change in Water in Storage in the High Plains Aquifer, Predevelopment to 2013 and 2011–13  (Reston, VA: United States Geological Survey)

[11] Scanlon B R, Faunt C C, Longuevergne L, Reedy R C, Alley W M, Mcguire V L and McMahon P B 2012 Groundwater depletion and sustainability of irrigation in the US High Plains and Central Valley. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. 109 9320–5

[12] Famiglietti J S 2014 The global groundwater crisis. Nature Climate Change 4 945-948.

[13] The Times Editorial Board 2016 When it comes to water, do not keep on trucking. in: LA Times http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-water-hauling-20160729-snap-story.html

[14] James I 2015 Dry springs and dead orchards. in: Desert Sun http://www.desertsun.com/story/news/environment/2015/12/10/morocco-groundwater-depletion-africa/76788024/

[15] Bedford L 2017 Irrigation, innovation saving water in Kansas. in: agriculture.com http://www.agriculture.com/machinery/irrigation-equipment/irrigation-innovation-saving-water-in-kansas

Good groundwater management makes for good neighbors

Good groundwater management makes for good neighbors

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.


Dedicated Water Underground readers know that this blog is not just about water science, but also some of the more cultural impacts of groundwater. Keeping in that tradition, today’s post begins with a joke*:

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Your neighbor

Your neighbor who?

Your neighbor’s groundwater, here to provide water for your plants!

Figure 1. Typical reaction to joke written by the author.


Perhaps this joke needs a little explanation. As we’ve covered before, groundwater is important not just as a supply of water for humans, rivers, and lakes, but also because it can increase the water available to plants, making ecosystems more drought resistant and productive. However, we also know that groundwater moves from place to place beneath the surface. This means that human actions which affect groundwater in one location, like increasing the amount of paved surface, might have an unexpected impact on ecosystems in nearby areas which depend on that groundwater.

Imagine, for example, two neighboring farmers. Farmer A decides retire and sells his land to a developer to put in a new, concrete-rich shopping center. Farmer B continues farming her land next door. How will the changes next door affect the groundwater beneath Farmer B’s land, and will this help or hurt crop production on her farm?

In a new study, my colleagues and I explored these questions using a series of computer simulations. We converted different percentages of a watershed from corn to concrete to see what would happen. Our results showed that the response of crops to urbanization depended on where the land use change occurred.

Figure 2. Conceptual diagram showing how urbanization might impact crop yield elsewhere in a watershed. From Zipper et al. (2017).

In upland areas where the water table was deep, replacing crops with concrete caused a reduction in groundwater recharge, lowering the water table everywhere in the watershed – not just beneath the places where urbanization occurred. This meant that places where the ecosystems used to be reliant on groundwater could no longer tap into this resources, making them more vulnerable to drought. However, places where the water table used to be too shallow saw boosts in productivity, as the lower water table was closer to the optimum water table depth.

In contrast, urbanization happening in lowland areas had a much more localized effect, with changes to the water table and yield occurring primarily only in the location where land use changed, because the changes in groundwater recharge were accounted for by increased inflows from the stream into the groundwater system.

So, what does this mean for the neighboring farmers we met earlier?

For Farmer A, it means the neighborly thing to do is work with the developers to minimize the effects of the land use change on groundwater recharge. This can include green infrastructure practices such as rain gardens or permeable pavement to try and mimic predevelopment groundwater recharge.

For Farmer B, the impacts depend on the groundwater depth beneath her farm. If the groundwater beneath her farm is shallow enough that her crops tap into that water supply, she should expect changes in the productivity of her crops, especially during dry periods, and plan accordingly.

*Joke written by scientist, rather than actual comedian.


For More Information:

Zipper SC, ME Soylu, CJ Kucharik, SP Loheide II. Indirect groundwater-mediated effects of urbanization on agroecosystem productivity: Introducing MODFLOW-AgroIBIS (MAGI), a complete critical zone model. Ecological Modelling, 359: 201-219. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2017.06.002



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.