Future Fellow gets to grips with groundwater

AWFreshwater resources beneath the ocean that may play a major role in the future water supply of Australian coastal cities will be a focus of the Future Fellowship awarded to Flinders University’s Professor Adrian Werner.

The award of the prestigious, $919,000 four-year Australian Research Council funding to the Flinders hydrogeologist was announced today in Brisbane.

Professor Werner said his Fellowship will be dedicated to achieving a better understanding of on-shore aquifers close to the ocean, as well as the potential of aquifers off-shore.

Sustainability – particularly the threat posed by the intrusion of saltwater as freshwater is pumped out – is a crucial issue for groundwater reserves, Professor Werner says.

Professor Werner says continental coastal groundwater and the groundwater systems on islands are especially vulnerable to the processes of salinification.

“My work is dedicated to understanding the physics that helps us to estimate the capacity and the rates of flow in aquifers, so that we can put the management of groundwater on a proper scientific footing,” he says.

Complex modelling based on extensive data and experimentation is necessary to understand how groundwater behaves in different geological settings. Not all the processes and mechanisms involved are obvious – some, says Professor Werner, are downright counter-intuitive.

He cites the so-called freshwater “lenses” alongside the River Murray, where mathematics has demonstrated how freshwater effectively floats on more saline water moving beneath it.

Achieving better understanding of the potentially vast reserves of freshwater beneath the seabeds is another priority of the research.

“The aquifers on land that extend out under the seas are not being accounted for by anybody,” Professor Werner says.

Professor Werner says several major Australian cities and towns, including Perth and Adelaide, are probably already using freshwater from undersea aquifers.

“Pumping freshwater from coastal aquifers means that extraction is already drawing the water level down to depths of 20 to 30 metres below sea-level in some places,” he says.

“At the moment the freshwater is continuing, but when is that going to end?

““Currently we have no idea if the reserves will last eight years or 8,000. No-one has a clue – the science isn’t there.”

Professor Werner says it is also possible that where the undersea aquifers are threatened by gradual natural processes of salinification, there would be a case for mining the aquifers sooner rather than later.

“We need to understand how much freshwater is there, and then manage them accordingly,” he said.

Professor Werner expressed his gratitude for continuing funding support from Flinders, and for the intellectual input of his colleagues in the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, based at Flinders.

Professor Robert Saint, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Flinders said the award recognised a long record of influential and ground-breaking research publications on groundwater by Professor Werner.

“His research as a Future Fellow, which will be conducted in tandem with industry partners, promises major breakthroughs in our understanding of this vital resource with far-reaching practical potential,” Professor Saint said.

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