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Relative contributions of microbial and infrastructure heat at a crude oil-contaminated site

April 16, 2018

Biodegradation of contaminants can increase the temperature in the subsurface due to heat generated from exothermic reactions, making temperature observations a potentially low-cost approach for determining microbial activity. For this technique to gain more widespread acceptance, it is necessary to better understand all the factors affecting the measured temperatures. Biodegradation has been occurring at a crude oil-contaminated site near Bemidji, Minnesota for 39 years, creating a quasi-steady-state plume of contaminants and degradation products. A model of subsurface heat generation and transport helps elucidate the contribution of microbial and infrastructure heating to observed temperature increases at this site. We created a steady-state, two-dimensional, heat transport model using previous-published parameter values for physical, chemical and biodegradation properties. Simulated temperature distributions closely match the observed average annual temperatures measured in the contaminated area at the site within less than 0.2 °C in the unsaturated zone and 0.4 °C in the saturated zone. The model results confirm that the observed subsurface heat from microbial activity is due primarily to methane oxidation in the unsaturated zone resulting in a 3.6 °C increase in average annual temperature. Another important source of subsurface heat is from the active, crude-oil pipelines crossing the site. The pipelines impact temperatures for a distance of 200 m and contribute half the heat. Model results show that not accounting for the heat from the pipelines leads to overestimating the degradation rates by a factor of 1.7, demonstrating the importance of identifying and quantifying all heat sources. The model results also highlighted a zone where previously unknown microbial activity is occurring at the site.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2018
Title Relative contributions of microbial and infrastructure heat at a crude oil-contaminated site
DOI 10.1016/j.jconhyd.2018.03.011
Authors Ean Warren, Barbara A. Bekins
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Contaminant Hydrology
Index ID 70198066
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WMA - Earth System Processes Division