‘Let’s understand aquifers to save water’

Global warming, water shortage and a growing population. These are only a few of the problems that Earth faces today. Researchers are racing against time to find out ways to tackle these problems. Wendy Timms of Australian National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training in Adelaide is one of them. Timms shares her research work in an email interview with Shilpika Rajeshwar

By Shilpika Rajeshwar
Published: Wednesday 31 July 2013

imageBriefly describe your research.

Our research investigates how water permeates through the densest layers of rock, sediment and clay to reveal the future of freshwater resources. These layers rule the fate of 97 per cent of the Earth’s freshwater. Understanding how water penetrates the layers underground is central to how we manage it.

You have mentioned the use of an environmental time machine for this study. How does it work?

The environmental time machine, or Geotechnical Centrifuge, helps us emulate what happens in rocks over 20 years in a single day of testing. It tests the rate at which water penetrates dense material. We have tested about 100 samples of rock from major basins across the continent, from depths of up to a kilometre.

Will your research provide answers to our growing needs?

We want to find out how much freshwater Australia actually has, and how often it is replenished. If we don’t understand the rates at which water sinks into the ground, we may unintentionally pump aquifers dry, which will have serious consequences for the communities and industries that depend on them.

Can the technology be used for anything else?

Our research is being used to assess groundwater seepage barriers above coal seams that generate energy or are proposed for energy requirements. When you drill for coal seam gas, you may want to test whether there is any chance that the gas might leak into somebody’s drinking water. The geotechnical centrifuge technology could also help address environmental sustainability issues related to uranium mining and nuclear waste.

When are you expecting results from this research?

The latest findings will be presented at conferences in August in the US and in September in Australia. One of the key results of the research so far is that some low permeability strata of rocks do leak significantly over long time periods or large areas. This recharge is very important to sustain aquifers that are used for water supply.

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