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Global aquifers dominated by fossil groundwaters but wells vulnerable to modern contamination

Abstract

The vulnerability of groundwater to contamination is closely related to its age. Groundwaters that infiltrated prior to the Holocene have been documented in many aquifers and are widely assumed to be unaffected by modern contamination. However, the global prevalence of these ‘fossil’ groundwaters and their vulnerability to modern-era pollutants remain unclear. Here we analyse groundwater carbon isotope data (12C, 13C, 14C) from 6,455 wells around the globe. We show that fossil groundwaters comprise a large share (42–85%) of total aquifer storage in the upper 1 km of the crust, and the majority of waters pumped from wells deeper than 250 m. However, half of the wells in our study that are dominated by fossil groundwater also contain detectable levels of tritium, indicating the presence of much younger, decadal-age waters and suggesting that contemporary contaminants may be able to reach deep wells that tap fossil aquifers. We conclude that water quality risk should be considered along with sustainable use when managing fossil groundwater resources.

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Figure 1: Prevalence of fossil groundwater in global aquifers.
Figure 2: Variations of fossil and post-1953 groundwater with depth.

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Acknowledgements

S.J. was supported by an NSERC Discovery Grant. R.G.T. acknowledges support of the NERC-ESRC-DFID UPGro grant NE/M008932/1.

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S.J. and J.W.K. analysed the compiled groundwater isotope data and wrote initial drafts of the manuscript. S.J. and D.P. analysed the compiled groundwater well construction data. All authors discussed results and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Scott Jasechko.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Jasechko, S., Perrone, D., Befus, K. et al. Global aquifers dominated by fossil groundwaters but wells vulnerable to modern contamination. Nature Geosci 10, 425–429 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2943

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