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How undersea aquifers could become a source of fresh water for coastal communities

How undersea aquifers could become a source of fresh water for coastal communities

Groundwater under the sea floor off the coast of Prince Edward Island could solve a host of problems for the Island, but there are a lot of questions that need to be answered first.

The research vessel Maria S. Merian is currently off the North Shore of P.E.I., using various techniques to search for groundwater below the bottom of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“P.E.I. is 100 per cent reliant on groundwater and it’s a finite resource, and we are very cautious with how we use it, as we should be,” said Josh MacFadyen, the Canada Research Chair in Geospatial Humanities at the University of Prince Edward Island.

P.E.I. is the first location being explored for the project, which is run by the Ocean Frontier Institute, a Canadian-funded research group led by universities in Atlantic Canada, with partners in North America and Europe. As such, what researchers learn off the shore of P.E.I. could have important implications for islands that rely on groundwater all around the world.

“It’s pretty exciting that we get … to be the first location for this,” MacFadyen said.

The search requires two different technologies. First, there is a seismic exploration to look for spaces and cracks in the structure of the sea floor to determine where water could be. Following that is an electromagnetic investigation, to determine what kind of fluid fills those spaces.

“Salt water [is] more conductive, compared to fresh water, so we can have a picture of the kind of water that lies below the sea floor,”  said Vittorio Maselli, the Canada Research Chair in Coastal Zone Processes at Dalhousie University and the principal investigator on the project.

How much water, and how much can we use?

Climate change could have a severe impact on the flow of water on P.E.I., and therefore the amount of water available to Islanders. The discovery of available water just offshore could be vital.

The research project is investigating not only whether the water is there, but how available it is to be used. The researchers want to know if the undersea aquifers are connected to ones under the land, and whether they are discharging into the ocean. If they are, how important are those discharges to the local environment?

The research can’t be conducted in isolation from people, says Josh MacFadyen. (UPEI)

“It is not the goal right now to understand basically where to drill, but it’s just to give a preliminary idea of the distribution and the potential as a freshwater reserve,” said Maselli.

“We will use numerical modelling to understand how they form there, if there is a connection with the land, if there is active discharge, and we can also model potential extraction.”

Focusing on water and people

MacFadyen’s role in the project is on the social end. He will be talking to people in various walks of life around the Island about the potential impact of using undersea aquifers.

“We can’t really conduct this research in isolation from the people,” he said.

“We want to know what are the concerns, what are the opportunities, what are the perceptions and what are the impacts that groundwater discovery could bring on Islanders?”

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