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By Thea Williams 27 March 2019 10 min read

©  James Knowler + Crew

THE gas trapped in Antarctic ice cores is known to provide unique insights into Earth’s ancient atmosphere.

Perhaps lesser known is the value of gases in Australian groundwater - the terrestrial equivalent.

That’s because underneath parts of our flat, dry, ancient continent runs - very slowly– some of the oldest water on Earth.

A new laboratory at CSIRO is now able to contribute to telling us the history of Australian groundwater, its origins and how it has moved through space and time, with much greater precision and accuracy.

The Noble Gas Facility - the first in the Southern Hemisphere – provides an entirely new facility to contribute to Australian groundwater investigations. It has been a labour of love, taking physicists three years to build from scratch, especially adapted to Australian conditions.

Its applications range from paleoclimate studies to pollution and hydrology. Most of all, we’ll get a much better understanding of the precious resource and how it might be impacted through use and by development.

Back to the periodic table

Forgotten your high school chemistry or physics?

It’s UNESCO’s International Year of the Periodic Table this year, 150 years since Dmitri Mendeleev discovered the Periodic Law on March 1, 1869, which came to be considered the ‘common language for science’.

CSIRO physicist Dr Axel Suckow has made a career from noble gases.

“They’re the elements on the right side of the Periodic Table of elements and they don’t react, and they are helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon,” he says.

“Helium was first seen on the sun when Bunsen and Kirchhoff developed spectral analysis. Argon has the highest mixing ratio in the atmosphere – there is 10,000 times more argon than helium.

“Krypton and xenon are difficult because they are hard to separate.”

They have unique signatures because of radioactive decay from the rocks hosting aquifers where the groundwater flows, and each tells a different story of geological history of the groundwater.

Suckow likens them to a footprint in the sand - pieces of information you can follow. They are, in fact, called tracers.

“A traced substance can allow you to follow a natural process – in water it can tell us how fast water moves, how does it mix, where does it infiltrate, at which temperature, how fast does it infiltrate, where does it exit,” Suckow explains.

Building a noble gas facility

There aren’t many people in the world who know how to build a noble gas machine. Suckow spent time towards the end of his PhD in Heidelberg sleeping in the lab with an alarm waking him up every 20 minutes to change valves. He knew then, the machine had to be automated.

He built a noble gas machine in Vienna – 3.5 years to build the hardware, two years spent developing the software and another 18 months ‘teaching’ it to calibrate the data from samples. With that experience, and help from CSIRO staff in the ‘Environmental Tracers and Applications’ team, it has ‘only’ taken three years to build the new machine in Adelaide – instead of seven.

The Noble Gas Facility in Adelaide is completely automated. This doesn’t just make it simpler to use, it makes it much more accurate, he says.

The water samples are collected in the field in copper tubes that can be tightly clamped off to ensure there is no contact with air.

Back in the laboratory the water samples start in the gas preparation line, where the gas is extracted – using liquid nitrogen which freezes the H₂O, to an industrial hairdryer which progressively releases noble gases.

A second room is dedicated to the mass spectrometer.

Here, the noble gas machine uses three cryotraps, separating out the gases at extreme cold temperatures – 10 Kelvin where 0 K is equivalent to −273.15 °C.

The first noble gas machine in the Southern Hemisphere, capable of analysing fossil water unique to Australia. Image: CSIRO/ James Knowler ©  James Knowler + Crew

The mass spectrometer blasts the gas with electrons to ionise the inert atoms and uses magnetic fields to measure the ratio of each gas.

The mass spectrometer provides a clear ratio of the chosen noble gas in the sample and its isotopes.

“We constructed the machine for Australian groundwater. There are about 12 noble gas machines, mostly in Europe and Northern America, this is the first in the Southern Hemisphere,” says Suckow.

He explains that the new noble gas machine is especially adapted for analysing Australian groundwater which includes high concentrations of reactive gases such as CH4 (methane) and helium.

And, put simply, distinct ratios of these gases define precise periods in Earth's history, in rock or water.

What noble gases tell us about Australia’s ancient groundwater

CSIRO has a long-standing history with capability in the use of environmental tracers across various projects. However, historically, other existing environmental tracers used to investigate groundwater challenges have a limited range for dating old groundwater, are often not geochemically inert and provide limited information on recharge conditions, for example the temperature at the time the water entered the underground system.

Noble gases – helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon - can be used to quantify very small flow velocity through aquitards and can determine recharge temperatures, says Suckow.

The copper tubes contain the gas extracted from water samples and, here, attached to the mass spectrometer for analysing. Image: CSIRO ©  James Knowler + Crew

Noble gases are particularly useful in telling us about groundwater because they can be traced to show us how quickly, or slowly, water moves through underground aquifers; providing a better understanding of the connection between surface water and groundwater flow, and the replenishment of aquifers; and showing if water can move between shallow aquifers and deep underground aquifers through geological layers with low permeability.

Noble gases provide a unique contribution to characterising and understanding groundwater flow processes, surface water–groundwater interactions, groundwater-seawater interactions, aquitard permeability and inter-aquifer connectivity.

Specifically, some of their isotopes allow estimating flow velocities on time scales from years (85Kr), centuries (39Ar), millennia (4He), up to one million years (81Kr) and beyond (4He, 40Ar, 21Ne, 134Xe, 136Xe).

“Because Australia is dry and flat, groundwater in many deeper aquifers moves very, very slowly and that means we need tracers for old water,” he says.

“Knowledge of flow velocities is indispensable when managing groundwater as a resource for drinking water, agriculture, industry and mining. Infiltration processes, such as recharge after flooding a dry riverbed or constant infiltration from a permanently losing stream, can also be identified using noble gases.

“We need a better understanding of the nature and extent of our groundwater systems and how they are recharged to ensure that, as we continue to use this valuable resource and with a changing climate, we also protect it from overuse or contamination.”

A bigger regional picture

Among the first water samples to be tested at the new Noble Gas Facility came from the Fitzroy catchment in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. It was part of groundwater analysis done for the Northern Australia Water Resource Assessment and aimed to identify the potential for, and risk of, increasing water-related development opportunities in northern Australia.

Groundwater hydrologist Andrew Taylor explains that in the Fitzroy catchment, the Kimberley plateau in the far north of the catchment receives high precipitation in the wet season which runs off the land surface draining into ephemeral rivers and flows downstream to flood the Fitzroy valley where it’s quite flat. The river eventually bursts its banks and comes out on to the flood plain where is saturates large parts of the landscape before a portion of the flood water infiltrates into the groundwater systems of multiple aquifers. However, when the wet season subsides, the river flows also subside, but large reaches of the river, as well as persistent instream water holes are sustained by the inflow of groundwater, discharging from aquifers.

The hydrogeology and groundwater systems of the Fitzroy catchment is largely a greenfield region which has never been properly characterised.

Taylor describes the aquifers and groundwater systems as a cake with different layers: Alluvial aquifers occur at the surface in association with the rivers, their tributaries and their flood plains, while underneath this there are multiple layers of sandstone, mudstone, siltstone and limestone, some of which allow water to flow (aquifers) and some which don’t (aquitards).

He has travelled across the Kimberley taking water samples from bores, as well as surface water from persistent water holes and reaches of the Fitzroy River to better understand the nature of groundwater systems in different aquifers and how hydrologically connected they are to the Fitzroy River.

Sampling groundwater from an artesian stock bore screened in the Poole Sandstone aquifer of the Fitzroy catchment.

“Groundwater resources occur over vast geological areas but information is sparse because there is only a certain number of bores associated with the occasional pastoral lease, mining operation or community water supply,” he says.

“First, we needed to review all of the available data, then get out and do some sampling from existing bores, as well as drilling in areas with no bores to gain a better understanding of the nature and extent of aquifers.

“Then we wanted to know how the groundwater systems in different aquifers interacted, particularly those aquifers that are deep.

“We also wanted to know where and how the groundwater systems are connected to the river itself.”

Taking samples from the surface water of the Fitzroy River was an important element in understanding the connectivity between groundwater and surface water.

Taylor took a helicopter and flew the length of the Fitzroy River taking surface water samples for tracers.

Comparing those samples from bores and also from the river, they were able to test those samples using the Noble Gas Facility and conceptualise the groundwater systems of the region.

“Environmental tracers allow us to fingerprint the history of that water and that’s what you need to know in an area where you don’t have much groundwater level information. If you can’t see where its water levels are going up and down – it’s hard to understand groundwater recharge, water that’s replenishing the groundwater, and whether is it coming from rainfall or flooding of rivers.

“We know, for example, in the Fitzroy where we did the helicopter survey, there are high levels of noble gases in the deep regional aquifer which we then found in the river itself. That showed us that groundwater from deep aquifers is discharging up into the river where regional faults cut through overlying aquitards.

“We take a lot of care in trying to conceptualise how things are behaving and using multiple lines of evidence to validate if that is real or not. Every time we do a new study, it tells us a different story, sometimes you get a nice story coming out of environmental tracers.

“We have now used this new conceptualisation to underpin a regional groundwater model which covers more than the Fitzroy River catchment and which is used to estimate the inflows and outflows of the deep regional sandstone aquifers (Grant Group and Poole Sandstone). It can also be used to assess the volume you can extract from the aquifer without affecting existing users and environmental assets like the river itself.”

Clues to paleoclimate

Axel Suckow points out that for the Great Artesian Basin the flow time from the site of infiltration to the springs in South Australia is roughly considered to be two million years.

“Helium, for instance, increases due to radioactive decay of uranium in the rocks and that means the higher the helium content in the groundwater the older the groundwater is,” he says.

“The other noble gases tell us about the infiltration conditions. If you give me a water sample that is 10,000 years old then, from the concentration of argon, krypton and xenon, I can tell you the ground surface temperature 10,000 years ago which is very valuable information for paleoclimate studies inland.

“We can reconstruct infiltration conditions such as temperature, salinity and altitude.”

With the new facility, it’s anticipated that data from groundwater systems across the country will progressively paint a picture of the continent’s paleoclimate. As such, the facility also stands to contribute to a better understanding climate change.

“Everyone sees the Murray Darling. With groundwater you can’t do that, it’s hidden in the ground but no less important. It’s much more difficult and challenging to investigate and I love that.”

The Science and Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF) awarded $550,000 to CSIRO for the acquisition of the noble gas spectrophotometer as part of the Noble Gas Facility.

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