Stable and Radioisotope Systematics Reveal Fossil Water as Fundamental Characteristic of Arid Orogenic-Scale Groundwater Systems

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Brendan J Moran , David F Boutt, Lee Ann Munk


In arid and semi-arid regions, persistent hydrological imbalances illuminate the considerable gaps in our spatiotemporal understanding of fundamental catchment-scale governing mechanisms. The Salar de Atacama basin is the most extreme example of groundwater-dominated continental basins and therefore is an ideal place to probe these unresolved questions. Geochemical and hydrophysical observations indicate that groundwaters discharging into the basin reflect a large regional system integrated over 102-104 year time-scales. The groundwater here, as in other arid regions is a critical freshwater resource subject to substantial demand from competing interests, particularly as development of its world-class lithium brine deposit expands. Utilizing a uniquely large and comprehensive set of H and O isotopes in water we demonstrate that much of the presumed recharge area on the Altiplano-Puna plateau exhibits isotopic signatures quite distinct from waters presently discharging within the endorheic Salar de Atacama watershed. δ18O values of predicted inflow source waters are 3.6‰ to 5.6‰ higher than modern plateau waters and 3H data from 87 discrete samples indicate nearly all of this inflow is composed of pre-modern recharge (i.e. fossil water). Under plausible conditions, these distinctions cannot be explained solely by natural variability in modern meteoric inputs or by steady-state groundwater flow. We present a conceptual model revealing the extensive influence of transient draining of fossil groundwater storage augmented by regional interbasin flow from the Andes. Our analysis provides robust constraints on fundamental mechanisms governing this arid continental groundwater system and a framework within which to address persistent uncertainties in similar systems worldwide.



Earth Sciences, Hydrology, Physical Sciences and Mathematics


Chile, Altiplano-Puna plateau, Paleo-recharge, Regional groundwater flow, Salar de Atacama, Tritium


Published: 2019-11-13 17:40

Last Updated: 2019-11-18 16:30

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