Glacial impacts on hydrologic processes in sedimentary basins: Evidence from natural tracer studies

J. C. Mcintosh, M. E. Schlegel, M. Person

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


This study reviews and synthesizes the results from geochemical and isotopic case studies across Europe, North America, Antarctica, and Greenland to evaluate the effects of Pleistocene glaciation on continental-scale groundwater circulation in sedimentary basins. The most effective studies, in terms of delineating high-resolution records of paleorecharge to aquifers, combine solute chemistry, stable isotopes of water, age tracers, and dissolved noble gases. Some of the lowest δ 18O values (-22‰), and noble gas temperatures (0°C), and high excess air concentrations were found in confined groundwaters in northern Estonia, likely derived from Scandinavian Ice Sheet subglacial recharge. These results are consistent with groundwater systems in North America that were recharged beneath the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Late Pleistocene precipitation may have also been an important source of recharge, as indicated by low-temperature, isotopically enriched groundwaters in several basins. Detectable age gaps have been observed in several aquifer systems in North America and Europe, likely caused by a hiatus of groundwater recharge in areas covered by permafrost during the Last Glacial Maximum (10-21ka). Aquifers that were not covered by ice sheets or permafrost contain continuous records of Pleistocene to Holocene recharge with variable δ 18O values and low paleotemperatures (4-9°C lower than today). The maximum depth of glacial meltwater penetration into sedimentary basins is approximately 50-1000m. Infiltration of dilute meltwaters dissolved large quantities of halite in evaporite-bearing basins. The presence of clay-rich glacial deposits and bedrock confining units enhanced the storage of meltwaters within low-permeability sediments and limited flushing of paleowaters in underlying aquifers. These results demonstrate the importance of continental glaciation as a driver for basinal-scale fluid and solute transport and have implications for long-term storage of radioactive waste and carbon dioxide at depth in high-latitude sedimentary basins.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7-21
Number of pages15
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2012


  • Basin
  • Glaciation
  • Groundwater
  • Isotopes
  • Meltwater
  • Pleistocene

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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