Is vital freshwater hidden beneath the sea?


Solutions to escalating global water supply issues are demanding innovative scientific investigation, such as Flinders University’s Professor Adrian Werner making important advances in assessing freshwater reservoirs that exist beneath the ocean.

These and many more disclosers from researchers will be discussed at the Australasian Groundwater Conference – being held at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre from 24-27 November (2019), supported by National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training based at Flinders University.

The international conference shines a light on the expertise of groundwater experts such as Professor Adrian Werner, who will speak at the conference about analysis of water sources near the Carmichael coal mine, but – as a Professor of Hydrogeology at Flinders University who holds an ARC Future Fellowship – he is also engaged with crucial research across a range of groundwater projects.

He recently completed an ARC Linkage project with the SA Government to look at the groundwater in floodplains adjacent to the River Murray. “We made some remarkable discoveries about freshwater next to the river in otherwise saline aquifers that defies accepted knowledge on aquifer-river interactions,” says Professor Werner, who was recently identified by The Australian newspaper as Australia’s research field leader in Hydrology and Water Resources.

“I’ve also been studying the extent of freshwater under the sea, through my Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, and have made significant inroads into our current knowledge of offshore freshwater.”

The work involving offshore aquifers has led to the recent publication of seven significant papers that cover a range of issues – from improving methods of obtaining offshore freshwater estimates, to better understanding how onshore events influence and affect subsea freshwater aquifers.

“Since the late 1960s, groundwater scientists have been intrigued by evidence of freshwater beneath the sea, and in the following decades, understanding subsea fresh groundwater has advanced and is now understood to be a global phenomenon,” says Professor Werner.

Several severe recent water shortages in coastal cities around the globe – including Cape Town during 2018 – raised the possibility of accessing offshore freshwater, even if only as an emergency measure.

However, Professor Werner warns that current knowledge of the extent of offshore freshwater is limited, and questions already exist whether humans are drawing on offshore freshwater reserves while pumping fresh groundwater from coastal aquifers.

“Our research is addressing whether we are already accessing offshore freshwater or whether this is a largely untapped resource that is yet to be exploited,” he says.

Two papers have focused on offshore freshwater in key Australian coastal aquifer systems – in Perth and the lower southeast of South Australia. “These are the first two attempts to study Australian offshore aquifers, and we found considerable offshore freshwater resources in both cases. These are ancient bodies of freshwater that are either in balance with onshore aquifer conditions or are in the process of depleting,” explains Professor Werner.

He says another exciting area of research has been studying delicate freshwater resources on small islands, including Pacific nations where sea-level rise threatens their water supplies. “We uncovered major revelations about Kiribati’s freshwater resources that have implications for groundwater management more generally.”

Source: Flinders University

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