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UW Professor Publishes Groundwater Study Peering Deep into the Past

May 19, 2017
Kevin Befus reaches groundwater during graduate work on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.
Kevin Befus reaches groundwater during graduate work on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands in the south Pacific Ocean. (Photo courtesy Kevin Befus)

University of Wyoming Assistant Professor of Civil and Architectural Engineering Kevin Befus led a groundwater study that explored how Earth’s groundwater resources contain water from the deep hydrologic past. Befus recently joined the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering at UW and leads the groundwater hydrology group (link to research website here.)

Befus and his collaborators calculated how much groundwater available today was replenished before the peak of the last ice age, more than 21,000 years ago, and how changing climate since then could cycle the groundwater storage. The title of the study is “The rapid yet uneven turnover of Earth’s groundwater”, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (link to paper here.)

Befus says “the duration groundwater spends in an aquifer keeps that water from participating in the rest of the hydrologic cycle. Underground, the water can interact with the surrounding rocks and transport dissolved chemicals to and from the land surface, affecting the quality of water in wells and reaching rivers. Over geologic timescales (of thousands of years and more), these interactions transform landscapes, affect global climate, and regulate water resource sustainability and quality. Our study explores how much groundwater has recharged since the Last Glacial Maximum and where groundwater on Earth is most likely associated with previous climate conditions.”

Befus and his collaborators also contributed to a related study, led by University of Calgary hydrogeologist Scott Jasechko, that quantified how much “fossil” groundwater contributes to well water around the world and the potential for younger water to reach the wells (link to paper here.) Fossil groundwater has been stored beneath the earth's surface for more than 12,000 years, and that ancient water is not immune to modern contamination, as has been widely assumed. Groundwater is the water stored beneath the earth's surface in soil pore spaces and within the fractures of rock formations. Groundwater provides drinking and irrigation water for billions of people around the world.

Groundwater represents about 15 percent of total water use in Wyoming and accounts for more than half of the water used for public water supplies*. For more information about groundwater resources in Wyoming, see the links below.

*Boughton, G.K., K.R. Remley, T.T. Bartos (2006). Estimated Water use in Wyoming During 2000. U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2006-3099. https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2006/3099/.


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