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The triple argon isotope composition of groundwater on ten-thousand-year timescales

November 20, 2021

Understanding the age and movement of groundwater is important for predicting the vulnerability of wells to contamination, constraining flow models that inform sustainable groundwater management, and interpreting geochemical signals that reflect past climate. Due to both the ubiquity of groundwater with order ten-thousand-year residence times and its importance for climate reconstruction of the last glacial period, there is a strong need for improving geochemical dating tools on this timescale. Whereas 14C of dissolved inorganic carbon and dissolved 4He are common age tracers for Late Pleistocene groundwater, each is limited by systematic uncertainties related to aquifer composition and lithology, and the extent of water-rock interaction. In principle, radiogenic 40Ar in groundwater acquired from decay of 40K in aquifer minerals should be insensitive to some processes that impact 14C and 4He and thus represent a useful, complementary age tracer. In practice, however, detection of significant radiogenic 40Ar signals in groundwater has been limited to a small number of studies of extremely old groundwater (>100 ka). Here we present the first high-precision (<1‰) measurements of triple Ar isotopes (40Ar, 38Ar, 36Ar) in groundwater. We introduce a model that distinguishes radiogenic 40Ar from atmospheric 40Ar by using the non-radiogenic Ar isotopes (36Ar, 38Ar) to correct for mass-dependent fractionation. Using this model, we investigate variability in radiogenic 40Ar excess (Δ40Ar) across 58 groundwater samples collected from 36 wells throughout California (USA). We find that Δ40Ar ranges from ~0‰ (the expected minimum value) to +4.2‰ across three study areas near Fresno, San Diego, and the western Mojave Desert. Based on measurements from a network of 23 scientific monitoring wells in San Diego, we find evidence for a strong dependence of Δ40Ar on aquifer lithology. We suggest that Δ40Ar is fundamentally controlled by the weathering of old K-bearing minerals and thus reflects both the degree of groundwater-rock interaction, which is related to groundwater age, and the integrated flow through different geological formations. Future studies of Late Pleistocene groundwater may benefit from high-precision triple Ar isotope measurements as a new tool to better interpret 14C- and 4He-based constraints on groundwater age and flow.

Publication Year 2021
Title The triple argon isotope composition of groundwater on ten-thousand-year timescales
DOI 10.1016/j.chemgeo.2021.120458
Authors Alan Seltzer, John A. Krantz, Jessica Ng, Wesley R. Danskin, David Bekaert, Peter H. Barry, David L. Kimbrough, Justin T. Kulongoski, Jeffrey P. Severinghaus
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Chemical Geology
Index ID 70243746
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center