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  1. Abstract

    Geophysical methods have long been used in earth and environmental science for the characterization of subsurface properties. While imaging the subsurface opens the “black box” of subsurface heterogeneity, we argue here that these tools can be used in a more powerful way than characterization, which is to develop and test hypotheses. Critical zone science has opened new questions and hypotheses in the hydrologic sciences holistically around controls on water fluxes between surface, biological, and underground compartments. While groundwater flows can be monitored in boreholes, water fluxes from the atmosphere to the aquifer through the soil and the root system are more complex to study than boreholes can inform upon. Here, we focus on the successful application of various geophysical tools to explore hypotheses in critical zone hydrogeology and highlight areas where future contributions could be made. Specifically, we look at questions around subsurface structural controls on flow, the dimensionality and partitioning of those flows in the subsurface, plant water uptake, and how geophysics may be used to constrain reactive transport. We also outline areas of future research that may push the boundaries of how geophysical methods are used to quantify critical zone complexity.

    This article is categorized under:

    Water and Life > Nature of Freshwater Ecosystems

    Science of Water > Hydrological Processes

    Water and Life > Methods

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available May 6, 2025
  2. Abstract

    The western U.S. is experiencing shifts in recharge due to climate change, and it is currently unclear how hydrologic shifts will impact geochemical weathering and stream concentration–discharge (CQ) patterns. Hydrologists often useCQanalyses to assess feedbacks between stream discharge and geochemistry, given abundant stream discharge and chemistry data. Chemostasis is commonly observed, indicating that geochemical controls, rather than changes in discharge, are shaping streamCQpatterns. However, fewCQstudies investigate how geochemical reactions evolve along groundwater flowpaths before groundwater contributes to streamflow, resulting in potential omission of importantCQcontrols such as coupled mineral dissolution and clay precipitation and subsequent cation exchange. Here, we use field observations—including groundwater age, stream discharge, and stream and groundwater chemistry—to analyseCQrelations in the Manitou Experimental Forest in the Colorado Front Range, USA, a site where chemostasis is observed. We combine field data with laboratory analyses of whole rock and clay x‐ray diffraction and soil cation‐extraction experiments to investigate the role that clays play in influencing stream chemistry. We use Geochemist's Workbench to identify geochemical reactions driving stream chemistry and subsequently suggest how climate change will impact streamCQtrends. We show that as groundwater age increases,CQslope and stream solute response are not impacted. Instead, primary mineral dissolution and subsequent clay precipitation drive strong chemostasis for silica and aluminium and enable cation exchange that buffers calcium and magnesium concentrations, leading to weak chemostatic behaviour for divalent cations. The influence of clays on streamCQhighlights the importance of delineating geochemical controls along flowpaths, as upgradient mineral dissolution and clay precipitation enable downgradient cation exchange. Our results suggest that geochemical reactions will not be impacted by future decreasing flows, and thus where chemostasis currently exists, it will continue to persist despite changes in recharge.

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  3. Abstract

    The western U.S. is experiencing increasing rain to snow ratios due to climate change, and scientists are uncertain how changing recharge patterns will affect future groundwater‐surface water connection. We examined how watershed topography and streambed hydraulic conductivity impact groundwater age and stream discharge at eight sites along a headwater stream within the Manitou Experimental Forest, CO USA. To do so, we measured: (a) continuous stream and groundwater discharge/level and specific conductivity from April to November 2021; (b) biweekly stream and groundwater chemistry; (c) groundwater chlorofluorocarbons and tritium in spring and fall; (d) streambed hydraulic conductivity; and (e) local slope. We used the chemistry data to calculate fluorite saturation states that were used to inform end‐member mixing analysis of streamflow source. We then combined chlorofluorocarbon and tritium data to estimate the age composition of riparian groundwater. Our data suggest that future stream drying is more probable where local slope is steep and streambed hydraulic conductivity is high. In these areas, groundwater source shifted seasonally, as indicated by age increases, and we observed a high fraction of groundwater in streamflow, primarily interflow from adjacent hillslopes. In contrast, where local slope is flat and streambed hydraulic conductivity is low, streamflow is more likely to persist as groundwater age was seasonally constant and buffered by storage in alluvial sediments. Groundwater age and streamflow paired with characterization of watershed topography and subsurface characteristics enabled identification of likely controls on future stream drying patterns.

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  4. Abstract

    Warming across the western United States continues to reduce snowpack, lengthen growing seasons, and increase atmospheric demand, leading to uncertainty about moisture availability in montane forests. As many upland forests have thin soils and extensive rooting into weathered bedrock, deep vadose‐zone water may be a critical late‐season water source for vegetation and mitigate forest water stress. A key impediment to understanding the role of the deep vadose zone as a reservoir is quantifying the plant‐available water held there. We quantify the spatiotemporal dynamics of rock moisture held in the deep vadose zone in a montane catchment of the Rocky Mountains. Direct measurements of rock moisture were accompanied by monitoring of precipitation, transpiration, soil moisture, leaf‐water potentials, and groundwater. Using repeat nuclear magnetic resonance and neutron‐probe measurements, we found depletion of rock moisture among all our monitored plots. The magnitude of growing season depletion in rock moisture mirrored above‐ground vegetation density and transpiration, and depleted rock moisture was from ∼0.3 to 5 m below ground surface. Estimates of storage indicated weathered rock stored at least 4%–12% of mean annual precipitation. Persistent transpiration and discrepancies between estimated soil matric potentials and leaf‐water potentials suggest rock moisture may mitigate drought stress. These findings provide some of the first measurements of rock moisture use in the Rocky Mountains and indicated rock moisture use is not just confined to periods of drought or Mediterranean climates.

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  5. Abstract

    This study integrated spatially distributed field observations and soil thermal models to constrain the impact of frozen ground on snowmelt partitioning and streamflow generation in an alpine catchment within the Niwot Ridge Long‐Term Ecological Research site, Colorado, USA. The study area was comprised of two contrasting hillslopes with notable differences in topography, snow depth and plant community composition. Time‐lapse electrical resistivity surveys and soil thermal models enabled extension of discrete soil moisture and temperature measurements to incorporate landscape variability at scales and depths not possible with point measurements alone. Specifically, heterogenous snowpack thickness (~0–4 m) and soil volumetric water content between hillslopes (~0.1–0.45) strongly influenced the depths of seasonal frost, and the antecedent soil moisture available to form pore ice prior to freezing. Variable frost depths and antecedent soil moisture conditions were expected to create a patchwork of differing snowmelt infiltration rates and flowpaths. However, spikes in soil temperature and volumetric water content, as well as decreases in subsurface electrical resistivity revealed snowmelt infiltration across both hillslopes that coincided with initial decreases in snow water equivalent and early increases in streamflow. Soil temperature, soil moisture and electrical resistivity data from both wet and dry hillslopes showed that initial increases in streamflow occurred prior to deep soil water flux. Temporal lags between snowmelt infiltration and deeper percolation suggested that the lateral movement of water through the unsaturated zone was an important driver of early streamflow generation. These findings provide the type of process‐based information needed to bridge gaps in scale and populate physically based cryohydrologic models to investigate subsurface hydrology and biogeochemical transport in soils that freeze seasonally.

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  6. Dual-porosity models are often used to describe solute transport in heterogeneous media, but the parameters within these models (e.g., immobile porosity and mobile/immobile exchange rate coefficients) are difficult to identify experimentally or relate to measurable quantities. Here, we performed synthetic, pore-scale millifluidics simulations that coupled fluid flow, solute transport, and electrical resistivity (ER). A conductive-tracer test and the associated geoelectrical signatures were simulated for four flow rates in two distinct pore-scale model scenarios: one with intergranular porosity, and a second with an intragranular porosity also defined. With these models, we explore how the effective characteristic-length scale estimated from a best-fit dual domain mass transfer (DDMT) model compares to geometric aspects of the flow field. In both model scenarios we find that: (1) mobile domains and immobile domains develop even in a system that is explicitly defined with one domain; (2) the ratio of immobile to mobile porosity is larger at faster flow rates as is the mass-transfer rate; and (3) a comparison of length scales associated with the mass-transfer rate (Lα) and those associated with calculation of the Peclet number (LPe) show LPe is commonly larger than Lα. These results suggest that estimated immobile porosities from a DDMT model are not only a function of physically mobile or immobile pore space, but also are a function of the average linear pore-water velocity and physical obstructions to flow, which can drive the development of immobile porosity even in single-porosity domains. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available March 1, 2025
  7. Semrau, Jeremy D. (Ed.)
    Streams impacted by historic mining activity are characterized by acidic pH, unique microbial communities, and abundant metal-oxide precipitation, all of which can influence groundwater-surface water exchange. We investigate how metal-oxide precipitates and hyporheic mixing mediate the composition of microbial communities in two streams receiving acid-rock and mine drainage near Silverton, Colorado, USA. A large, neutral pH hyporheic zone facilitated the precipitation of metal particles/colloids in hyporheic porewaters. A small, low pH hyporheic zone, limited by the presence of a low-permeability, iron-oxyhydroxide layer known as ferricrete, led to the formation of steep geochemical gradients and high dissolved-metal concentrations. To determine how these two hyporheic systems influence microbiome composition, we installed well clusters and deployed in situ microcosms in each stream to sample porewaters and sediments for 16S rRNA gene sequencing. Results indicated that distinct hydrogeochemical conditions were present above and below the ferricrete in the low pH system. A positive feedback loop may be present in the low pH stream where microbially-mediated precipitation of iron-oxides contribute to additional clogging of hyporheic pore spaces, separating abundant, iron-oxidizing bacteria (Gallionella spp.) above the ferricrete from rare, low-abundance bacteria below the ferricrete. Metal precipitates and colloids that formed in the neutral pH hyporheic zone were associated with a more diverse phylogenetic community of nonmotile, nutrient-cycling bacteria that may be transported through hyporheic pore spaces. In summary, biogeochemical conditions influence, and are influenced by, hyporheic mixing, which mediates the distribution of micro-organisms and thus the cycling of metals in streams receiving acid-rock and mine drainage. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available February 23, 2025
  8. Free, publicly-accessible full text available November 1, 2024