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Featured article from geoscience journal

Journal of Hydrology, 2010, Vol 389, Issue 1, p. 31-41
Catchment scale tracer testing from karstic features in a porous limestone

Tracer testing was undertaken from sinking streams feeding the Chalk, a porous limestone aquifer characterised by frequent small-scale surface karst features. The objective was to investigate the nature and extent of sub-surface karstic development in the aquifer. Previous tracer testing has demonstrated rapid flow combined with low attenuation of tracer. In this study, at two sites rapid groundwater flow was combined with very high attenuation and at two other sites no tracer was detected at springs within the likely catchment area of the stream sinks tested, suggesting that tracer was totally attenuated along the flowpath. It is proposed that the networks beneath stream sinks in the Chalk and other mildly karstic aquifers distribute recharge into multiple enlarged fractures that divide and become smaller at each division whereas the networks around springs have a predominantly tributary topology that concentrates flow into a few relatively large cavities, a morphology with similarities to that of the early stages of karstification. Tracer attenuation is controlled by the degree to which the two networks are directly connected. In the first state, there is no direct linkage and flow between the two networks is via primary fractures in which tracer attenuation is extreme. The second state is at a percolation threshold in which a single direct link joins the two networks. A very small proportion of tracer reaches the spring rapidly but overall attenuation is very high. In the third state, the recharge and discharge networks are integrated therefore a large fraction of tracer reaches the spring and peak concentrations are relatively high. Despite the large number of stream sinks that recharge the Chalk aquifer, these results suggest that sub-surface conduit development may not always be continuous, with flow down smaller fissures and fractures causing high attenuation of solutes and particulates providing a degree of protection to groundwater outlets that is not seen in more highly karstic aquifers. Bacteriophage tracers that can be detected at very large dilutions (1015) are recommended for investigating groundwater pathways where attenuation may be high.