In hydrology, a rock layer or sequence that contains water and releases it in appreciable amounts. The rocks contain water-filled pores that, when connected, allow water to flow through their matrix. A confined aquifer is overlain by a rock layer that does not transmit water in any appreciable amount or that is impermeable. There probably are few truly confined aquifers. In an unconfined aquifer the upper surface (water table) is open to the atmosphere through permeable overlying material. An aquifer also may be called a water-bearing stratum, lens, or zone.
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This diagram indicates typical flow directions in a cross-sectional view of a simple confined/unconfined aquifer system. The system shows two aquifers with one aquitard (a confining or impermeable layer), between them, surrounded by the bedrock aquiclude, which is in contact with a gaining stream (typical in humid regions). The water table and unsaturated zone are also illustrated.
An aquitard is a zone within the earth that restricts the flow of groundwater from one aquifer to another. An aquitard can sometimes, if completely impermeable, be called an aquiclude or aquifuge. Aquitards are composed of layers of either clay or non-porous rock with low hydraulic conductivity.
Saturated means the pressure head of the water is greater than atmospheric pressure (it has a gauge pressure > 0). The definition of the water table is surface where the pressure head is equal to atmospheric pressure (where gauge pressure =0). Unsaturated conditions occur above the water table where the pressure head is negative (absolute pressure can never be negative, but gauge pressure can) and the water which incompletely fills the pores of the aquifer material is under suction. The water content in the unsaturated zone is held in place by surface adhesive forces and it rises above the water table (the zero gauge pressure isobar) by capillary action to saturate a small zone above the phreatic surface (the capillary fringe) at less than atmospheric pressure. This is termed tension saturation and is not the same as saturation on a water content basis. Water content in a capillary fringe decreases with increasing distance from the phreatic surface. The capillary head depends on soil pore size. In sandy soils with larger pores the head will be less than in clay soils with very small pores. The normal capillary rise in a clayey soil is less than 1.80 m (six feet) but can range between 0.3 and 10 m (1 and 30 ft).
The capillary rise of water in a small diameter tube is this same physical process. The water table is the level to which water will rise in a large diameter pipe (e.g. a well) which goes down into the aquifer and is open to the atmosphere.
In mountainous areas (or near rivers in mountainous areas), the main aquifers are typically unconsolidated alluvium. They are typically composed of mostly horizontal layers of materials deposited by water processes (rivers and streams), which in cross-section (looking at a two-dimensional slice of the aquifer) appear to be layers of alternating coarse and fine materials. Coarse materials, because of the high energy needed to move them, tend to be found nearer the source (mountain fronts or rivers), while the fine-grained material will make it farther from the source (to the flatter parts of the basin or overbank areas - sometimes called the pressure area). Since there are less fine-grained deposits near the source, this is a place where aquifers are often unconfined (sometimes called the forebay area), or in hydraulic communication with the land surface.
If the distinction between confined and unconfined is not clear geologically (i.e., if it is not known if a clear confining layer exists, or if the geology is more complex, e.g., a fractured bedrock aquifer), the value of storativity returned from an aquifer test can be used to determine it (although aquifer tests in unconfined aquifers should be interpreted differently than confined ones). Confined aquifers have very low storativity values (much less than 0.01, and as little as 10-5), which means that the aquifer is storing water using the mechanisms of aquifer matrix expansion and the compressibility of water, which typically are both quite small quantities. Unconfined aquifers have storativities (typically then called specific yield) greater than 0.01 (1% of bulk volume); they release water from storage by the mechanism of actually draining the pores of the aquifer, releasing relatively large amounts of water (up to the drainable porosity of the aquifer material, or the minimum volumetric water content).
The beach provides a model to help visualize an actual aquifer. If a hole is dug into the sand, very wet or saturated sand will be located at a shallow depth. This hole is a crude well, the wet sand represents an aquifer, and the level to which the water rises in this hole represents the water table.
If a rock unit of low porosity is highly fractured, it can also make a good aquifer (via fissure flow). Porosity is important, but alone, it does not determine a rock's ability of being an aquifer. Areas of the Deccan Traps (a basaltic lava) in west central India are good examples. Similarly, the micro-porous (Upper Cretaceous) Chalk of south east England, although having a reasonably high porosity, has a low grain-to-grain permeability, with much of its good water-yielding characteristics being due to micro-fracturing and fissuring.
Fresh water aquifers, especially those with limited recharge by meteoric water, can be over-exploited and, depending on the local hydrogeology, may draw in non-potable water or saltwater (saltwater intrusion) from hydraulically connected aquifers or surface water bodies. This can be a serious problem especially in coastal areas and other areas where aquifer pumping is excessive. In some areas the ground water can be contaminated by mineral poisons, such as arsenic - see Arsenic contamination of groundwater.
Aquifers are critically important in human habitation and agriculture. Deep aquifers in arid areas have long been water sources for irrigation (see Ogallala below). Many villages and even large cities draw their water supply from wells in aquifers.
Municipal, irrigation, and industrial water supplies are provided through large wells. Multiple wells for one water supply source are termed "wellfields", which may withdraw water from confined or unconfined aquifers. Using ground water from deep, confined aquifers provides more protection from surface water contamination. Some wells, termed "collector wells," are specifically designed to induce infiltration of surface (usually river) water.
Aquifers that provide sustainable fresh groundwater to urban areas and for agricultural irrigation are typically close to the ground surface (within a couple of hundred meters) and have some recharge by fresh water. This recharge is typically from rivers or meteoric water (precipitation) that percolates into the aquifer through overlying unsaturated materials.
Aquifer depletion is a problem in some areas, and is especially critical in northern Africa; see the Great Manmade River project of Libya for an example. However, new methods of groundwater management such as artificial recharge and injection of surface waters during seasonal wet periods has extended the life of many freshwater aquifers, especially in the United States.
Aquifer--African transboundary water: the ESA-funded tiger demonstration project aquifer depends on Earth observation data for transboundary African water management.
Sep 01, 2007; aquifer is one of the demonstrator projects of ESA's "Earth observation for Integrated Water Resources Management in...