Amargosa Desert Research Site

ADRS Site Description

ADRS Site Description
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ADRS Research Team

ADRS Research Team
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ADRS Collaborative Information

ADRS Collaborative Information
Work at ADRS

Science Center Objects

In 1976, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began studies of unsaturated zone hydrology at a site in the Amargosa Desert near Beatty, Nevada, as part of the USGS Low-Level Radioactive Waste Program. The site is near disposal trenches for civilian waste.

Over the years, USGS investigations at the Amargosa Desert Research Site (ADRS) have provided long-term "benchmark" information about the hydraulic characteristics and soil-water movement for both natural-site conditions and simulated waste-site conditions in an arid environment. In 1995, as a result of finding elevated concentrations of tritium and carbon-14 in the unsaturated zone beneath the ADRS, the scope of research was broadened to improve understanding of processes affecting contaminant transport and release to environmental receptors. The ADRS was incorporated into the USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program in 1997. The site serves as a field laboratory for multidisciplinary, collaborative research that involves scientists from research institutes, universities, National laboratories, and the USGS.

Current Research

Sampling at the Amargosa Desert Research Site

USGS scientist Jonathan Arthur sampling at the Amargosa Desert Research Site. (Credit: Brian Andraski, USGS. Public domain.)

Field-intensive research on water, gas, and chemical movement in the environment is being supported by multiple lines of data:

  • Weather, evapotranspiration, and plant data
  • Subsurface moisture, temperature, gas, and ground-water monitoring
  • Soil and sediment properties; geology; geophysics; and microbiology

Mixed-waste, point-source contaminant studies include:

  • Tritium
  • Radiocarbon
  • Volatile-organic compounds
  • Mercury
Using a magnometer in the trench at the Amargosa Desert Research Station

Using a magnometer in the trench at the Amargosa Desert Research Station. (Credit: Brian Andraski, USGS. Public domain.)

Natural, non-point-source contaminant studies include:

  • Perchlorate
    Perchlorate has emerged as an environmental contaminant of concern in drinking water and food. Natural perchlorate forms in the atmosphere and soil, plant, and atmospheric-deposition samples are being used to evaluate factors controlling its accumulation and cycling in desert environments.

Field and laboratory data are being integrated with numerical modeling to develop predictive tools for assessing chemical transport and fate in the environment.

Methods are being developed to improve characterization of physical, chemical, and biological factors that control hydrologic and chemical-transport processes.


Overall Research Objectives

  • Improve quantitative understanding of arid-site processes affecting contaminant transport and release to environmental receptors by integrating existing and new information into physically based numerical and analytical models.
  • Fill gaps in present knowledge of soil–plant–atmosphere interactions in arid regions with respect to water, gas, and contaminant transport. Explain effects of such interactions on transport processes and on environmental health through analyses of spatial and temporal heterogeneities and trends, and through targeted data collection.
  • Develop efficient methods for characterizing anthropogenically introduced and naturally occurring contaminant distributions in order to test theories of flow and transport processes at the field scale.


Evapotranspiration station at the Amargosa Desert Research Site

Evapotranspiration station at the Amargosa Desert Research Site. (Public domain.)

Use of Results

Results of studies at the Amargosa Desert Research Site (ADRS) are contributing to the characterization and understanding of arid-site processes. The findings have far reaching implications for water resources management in such environments, both in terms of waste disposal and of ground-water availability. Long-term, benchmark information and the testing and development of methods and models at the ADRS have helped others in their characterization of flow and transport processes at other arid sites in the United States and the World. 

"I just read the article, "Plant-Based Plume-Scale Mapping of Tritium Contamination in Desert Soils," and wanted to express my appreciation. This is the first time anyone has mapped subsurface vapor-phase tritium migration using plants, but I doubt it will be the last. The technique that your team worked out, and the quality of the verification that was conducted, virtually ensure that this method will be used again and again. Providing a new technique that saves both time and money without sacrificing data quality is a real contribution, and one which may improve characterization of many environmental sites."

Steve Rock, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, written communication, 2005


"I have found the paleohydrologic investigations of the USGS involving sub-soil nitrates and chlorides in arid regions to be both instructive and relevant to my current research endeavors with perchlorate and oxy-anions."

Gregory Harvey, Environmental Safety and Health Division, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, written communication, 2004.


"I would like to thank all of the ADRS research team, and especially you for the cooperation and help that allowed us to perform our study at the ADRS. The ADRS truly is serving as a field laboratory for the study of vadose-zone hydrology in arid regions. The long-term information and basic data gathered at the site is of benefit to many researchers that have a wide variety of interests. The generous data sharing and the up-to-date website are not only saving money and time for those doing research at the ADRS, but are also accelerating improved understanding hydrologic processes."

Weiquan Dong, Research Assistant and Ph.D. candidate, Department of Geoscience, Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas, May 20, 2004


"The ADRS studies provide valuable guidelines that help establish regulatory minimums on demonstrations of adequate design, numerical modeling, and performance monitoring for alternative evapotranspiration (ET) landfill caps. The high quality, in-situ data on long-term soil- water movement verifies the realistic range of critical model parameters for the dry and sparse-vegetation conditions that often prevail in parts of Montana. The ADRS studies also provide insights on the effects of plants and soil properties on cap performance, and suggest that ET cap performance may actually improve over the 30 years of landfill post-closure care."

Tim Stepp, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, written communication, 2002.


"Research activities at the Amargosa Desert Research Site are of great inspiration on the aspect of waste disposal in arid environments, of which so little is known. Results of the Amargosa Desert studies will be of great help in our work to identify suitable sites and to develop guidelines for waste disposal in Namibia, a country with a highly variable climatic setting and large areas that receive very limited precipitation, such as the Namib and Kalahari Deserts."

Sindila Mwiya, Engineering and Environment Subdivision, Geological Survey of Namibia, written communication, 2001.


"Soil-water measurement technology developed at the Amargosa Desert Research Site is being used to assess the hydrologic performance of an evapotranspiration landfill cover at the US Army Fort Carson military base, Colorado Springs, Colorado. The techniques provide a means to assess the performance of unconventional landfill covers that can be constructed at a considerably lower cost than conventional covers."

Patrick McGuire, Senior Soil Scientist, Earth Tech, Sheboygan, WI and Donald Moses, Chief, HTW Geotechnical Section, Engineering Division, US Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha, NE, written communication, 2001.

This work is of particular interest to regulators, U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy, and industry professionals because it is the first alternative landfill-cover design to be approved by the state of Colorado.

Under a contract from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has requested ADRS multiple-year meteorologic and hydrologic data for use in the development of numerical models for calculating water movement through the unsaturated zone at low-level radioactive waste sites. Water-flux meters designed by PNNL have also been installed at the ADRS in a collaborative effort (1) to test, under hyper-arid climate conditions, the performance of meters which are being used to document net water infiltration into waste covers at the Hanford site and (2) to support the ADRS study of vadose-zone transport. The water-flux meter installation and testing effort is supported by U.S. Department of Energy (SUBCON) and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission funding. (Glendon Gee, Senior Staff Scientist, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA, personal communication, 2001).