Transport modeling applied to the interpretation of groundwater 36Cl age

Jungho Park, Craig M. Bethke, Thomas Torgersen, Thomas M. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We use reactive transport modeling to consider how diffusion and hydrodynamic dispersion, cross-formational flow, and subsurface production affect the steady state distribution in flow regimes of the radioactive isotope 36Cl, and the relationship of the isotope distribution to groundwater residence time, or "age." The isotope forms naturally in the atmosphere, dissolves in rainwater, and then decays in the subsurface with a half-life of ∼301,000 years; hence it is important for age dating very old groundwater. In a simple flow regime composed of an aquifer confined above and below by aquitards, isotopic age may correspond rather well with a groundwater's "Piston flow" age. This correspondence is favored where the aquifer is thick, cross-formational flow is insignificant, salinity is low, and the diffusion coefficient within the aquitards is small. The maximum dateable age, however, is somewhat smaller than expected from the isotope's half-life. Owing to the effect of "dead" chloride, dating based on isotope abundance (the 36Cl/Cl ratio) may be less accurate than that based on 36Cl concentration. Cross-formational flow can strongly affect the 36Cl distribution and abundance, preventing the rates and even direction of flow within an aquifer from being interpreted using the piston flow model. Where salinity is moderate or high, the isotope distribution is controlled by subsurface production, and dating on the basis of the decay of atmospheric 36Cl is not possible, in models of simple flow regimes the 36Cl method fails to predict groundwater age accurately where groundwater chlorinity exceeds ∼75-150 mg kg-1. Reactive transport models hold considerable promise for improving interpretation of the rates and patterns of groundwater flow from radioisotope distributions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11-115
Number of pages105
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2002


  • Chlorine 36
  • Diffusion
  • Groundwater age
  • Groundwater modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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