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Steady state fractionation of heavy noble gas isotopes in a deep unsaturated zone

May 30, 2017

To explore steady state fractionation processes in the unsaturated zone (UZ), we measured argon, krypton, and xenon isotope ratios throughout a ∼110 m deep UZ at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Amargosa Desert Research Site (ADRS) in Nevada, USA. Prior work has suggested that gravitational settling should create a nearly linear increase in heavy-to-light isotope ratios toward the bottom of stagnant air columns in porous media. Our high-precision measurements revealed a binary mixture between (1) expected steady state isotopic compositions and (2) unfractionated atmospheric air. We hypothesize that the presence of an unsealed pipe connecting the surface to the water table allowed for direct inflow of surface air in response to extensive UZ gas sampling prior to our first (2015) measurements. Observed isotopic resettling in deep UZ samples collected a year later, after sealing the pipe, supports this interpretation. Data and modeling each suggest that the strong influence of gravitational settling and weaker influences of thermal diffusion and fluxes of CO2 and water vapor accurately describe steady state isotopic fractionation of argon, krypton, and xenon within the UZ. The data confirm that heavy noble gas isotopes are sensitive indicators of UZ depth. Based on this finding, we outline a potential inverse approach to quantify past water table depths from noble gas isotope measurements in paleogroundwater, after accounting for fractionation during dissolution of UZ air and bubbles.

Publication Year 2017
Title Steady state fractionation of heavy noble gas isotopes in a deep unsaturated zone
DOI 10.1002/2016WR019655
Authors Alan M. Seltzer, Jeffrey P. Severinghaus, Brian J. Andraski, David A. Stonestrom
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Water Resources Research
Index ID 70188024
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Research Program - Western Branch; Nevada Water Science Center