Shuang Wang, Karl E. Butler, Serban Danielescu, Brent R. Petersen, and Mark Grimmett, "Monitoring percolation of a conductive tracer, as a proxy for nitrate transport, through glacial till and fractured sandstone in the vadose zone underlying a potato field, using 3D cross-hole electrical resistivity imaging," Poster NS41B-1914, American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, (San Francisco, CA, USA), Dec. 12-16, 2016.


Nitrate is a necessary nutrient for crops, but high surface water and groundwater concentrations can negatively affect aquatic ecosystem and human health. At AAFC-AAC Harrington Research Farm (PEI, Canada), 3D cross-hole electrical resistivity imaging (ERI) is being used to investigate the percolation of a conductive tracer (KCl) through a 17 m thick vadose zone as a proxy for the transport of nitrate under natural recharge conditions. The objectives are to investigate the effect of heterogeneity on transport pathways and infer how long it would take for changes in farming practices at the surface to affect nitrate loading to the underlying aquifer.

The resistivity array consists of 96 permanently installed electrodes – 24 at 0.68 m spacing in each of three 16 m deep boreholes arranged in a triangle with 9 m sides, and 24 at 1 m spacing buried in shallow trenches connecting the boreholes. A background survey revealed five sub-horizontal layers of alternating resistivity in general agreement with the geology of ~ 6 m soil and glacial till overburden overlying interbedded sandstone and shaley sandstone layers. On March 27th, 2015, 1.1 m of snow was removed from a 15.2 m2 area positioned symmetrically inside the triangular array and 100 kg of granular KCl was distributed on the ground surface. The removed snow was immediately replaced to await the spring thaw.

Post-tracer surveys indicate tracer had percolated to depths of 1 m, 1.2 m, 3.0 m and 3.5 m by the 4th, 26th, 30th, and 46th days after tracer application. Its movement slowed significantly by early May, 2015, with the end of snow melt. Tracer spread laterally very slowly through the summer and early fall, 2015, but has remained within the triangular array. The shallow conductivity anomaly produced by the tracer diminished significantly over the winter and spring of 2016 but showed little evidence of bulk matrix flow below ~3.5 m depth. It is speculated that fractures in the glacial till, too thin to be resolved by the ERI survey, conveyed tracer downward to a zone near top of weathered rock, which became more conductive over time. After 16 months, there is no ERI evidence of tracer migrating deeper than ~8 m depth – a finding corroborated by the absence of any significant anomalies in a water conductivity logs measured ~10 m downgradient of the tracer test site.


AGU Link

Harvard Link


This work was supported by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) at both Fredericton, NB, and Harrington, PE. The work was also supported by the University of New Brunswick (UNB).

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