Combining numerical modeling and stable isotope values to quantify groundwater recharge from the Chilean Andes to the Pampa del Tamarugal Basin, Atacama Desert, northern Chile

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Justin P Dodd and Ryan Pollyea, Northern Illinois University, Geology and Environmental Geosciences, DeKalb, IL, United States
The Atacama Desert of northern Chile is one of the driest regions on Earth and receives less than 5mm of precipitation annually. The Pampa del Tamarugal (PdT) Basin contains the largest aquifer system in the region, yet the mechanisms and timing of aquifer recharge and continental-scale groundwater flux are poorly understood. Although there is little debate that the source of groundwater recharge is the higher elevation regions of the Andean Altiplano to the east of the PdT Basin, there remains much uncertainty surrounding the mechanisms and timing of aquifer recharge and continental-scale groundwater flux. Most recharge models of the PdT focus on surface water runoff and alluvial fan recharge on shorter time scales, but many of these models explicitly neglect deep flow pathways. Previous investigators have combined the thermal aquifer profile and 14C groundwater ages to propose an alternative conceptual model in which cold meteoric water infiltrates deep into the Cordillera before circulating upward into the PdT by thermal convection through fault-controlled migration pathways. Although this conceptual model provides a convincing theoretical argument for deep fluid circulation, it cannot constrain the magnitude of this deep recharge flux. In this work, we revisit deep-flow conceptual model by combining the spatial distribution of hydrogen and oxygen isotope values as groundwater tracers with a non-isothermal model of continental scale groundwater flow through a two-dimensional transect from the Chilean Andes to the PdT Basin. This work provides first-order estimates on the contribution of deep groundwater circulation within the PdT Aquifer, while providing a framework for (1) quantifying boundary conditions for high resolution models of groundwater resources within the PdT Aquifer, (2) assessing the influence of variable future climate scenarios for groundwater availability in the region, and (3) further integrating conservative tracers and numerical models for groundwater resource evaluation in hyperarid environments.