Using excess 4He to quantify variability in aquitard leakage

W. Payton Gardner, Glenn A. Harrington, Brian D. Smerdon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Fluid flux through aquitards controls the rate of recharge, discharge, cross-formational fluid flow and contaminant transport in subsurface systems. In this paper, concentrations of 4He are used to investigate the spatial distribution of vertical fluid flux through the regionally extensive Great Artesian Basin aquitard system in northern South Australia. Two vertical profiles of 4He concentration in aquitard pore water, augmented with regional sampling of aquifers above and below the aquitard were used to estimate fluid flux at multiple locations over a large spatial area. 4He concentrations in the shallow aquifer above the Great Artesian Basin range from atmospheric equilibrium to 1000 times enriched over atmosphere. Fluid flux through the aquitard was estimated by fitting observed helium concentrations at each sampling site with a 1-D model of helium transport through the aquitard. Estimated fluid fluxes through the aquitard vary over three orders of magnitude across the study area. In areas of competent aquitard, fluid fluxes are less than 0.003mm/yr, and mass transport of helium is dominated by molecular diffusion. Preferential discharge zones are clearly identifiable with fluid fluxes up to 3mm/yr. Our results show that fluid flux through a regionally extensive aquitard can be highly variable at large spatial scales, and that 4He concentrations in aquifers bounding the aquitard system provide a convenient and sensitive method for investigating aquitard flux at the regional scale.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-75
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Hydrology
StatePublished - Oct 25 2012


  • Arid zone hydrology
  • Environmental tracers
  • Groundwater discharge
  • Noble gas geochemistry


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