Depth to water table correction for initial carbon-14 activities in groundwater mean residence time estimation

Dylan Irvine, Cameron Wood, Ian Cartwright, Tania Oliver

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Carbon-14 (14C) is routinely used to determine mean residence times (MRTs) of groundwater. 14C-based MRT calculations typically assume that the unsaturated zone is in equilibrium with the atmosphere, controlling the input 14C activity. However, multiple studies have shown that unsaturated zone 14C activities are lower than atmospheric values. Despite the availability of unsaturated zone 14C data, no attempt has been made to generalise initial 14C activities with depth to the water table. We utilise measurements of unsaturated zone 14C activities from 13 studies to produce a 14C–depth relationship to estimate initial 14C activities. The technique only requires the depth to the water table at the time of sampling or an estimate of depth to water in the recharge zone to determine the input 14C activity, making it straightforward to apply. Applying this new relationship to two Australian datasets (113 14C measurements in groundwater) shows that MRT estimates were up to 9250 years younger when the 14C–depth correction was applied relative to conventional MRTs. These findings may have important implications for groundwater samples that suggest the mixing of young and old waters and the determination of the relative proportions of young and waters, whereby the estimated fraction of older water may be much younger than previously assumed. Owing to the simplicity of the application of the technique, this approach can be easily incorporated into existing correction schemes to assess the sensitivity of unsaturated zone 14C to MRTs derived from 14C data.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5415-5424
Number of pages10
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


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