Tracers as Essential Tools for the Investigation of Physical and Chemical Processes in Groundwater Systems
In complex environmental systems, tracers are indispensable tools for the investigation of various physical, chemical, and biological processes. From the large variety of tracers employed by EAWAG in the aquatic environment, we present some examples relevant to groundwater research. Some tracers (e.g., 222Rn, 3H/3He, chlorofluorocarbons) allow the time since groundwater infiltration to be determined; this information can be used to quantify process rates such as flow velocities, recharge and reaction rates. Other tracers (e.g., conductivity, isotopes of oxygen or boron) can be used to quantify mixing ratios between waters of different origin, for instance, to study the admixture of leachate from a landfill to an aquifer. In contrast to these inert tracers, chemically reactive tracers (e.g., nitroaromatic compounds) can be used to study subsurface biogeochemical transformation processes, e.g. the reduction of contaminants under anaerobic conditions. The successful use of tracers in the study of environmental systems requires highly developed analytical facilities for a broad palette of tracer measurements and a careful choice of appropriate tracers for each specific problem.
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