Contaminant occurrence and migration between high- and low-permeability zones in groundwater systems: A review Academic Article uri icon

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  • In recent decades, water quality problems that impact human health, especially groundwater pollution, have been intensely studied, and this has contributed to new ideas and policies around the world such as Low Impact Development (LID) and Superfund legislation. The fundamental to many of these problems is pollutant occurrence and migration in saturated porous media, especially in groundwater. Such environments often contain contrasting zones of high and low permeability with significant differences in hydraulic conductivity (~10-4 and 10-8┬ám/s, respectively). High-permeability zones (HPZs) represent the primary pathways for pollutant transport in groundwater, while low-permeability zones (LPZs) are often diffusion dominated and serve as both sinks and sources (i.e., via back-diffusion) of pollutants over many decades. In this review, concepts and mechanisms of solute source depletion, contaminant accumulation, and back-diffusion in high- and low-permeability systems are presented, and new insights gained from both experimental and numerical studies are analyzed and summarized. We find that effluent monitoring and novel image analysis techniques have been adroitly used to investigate temporal and spatial evolutions of contaminant concentration; simultaneously, mathematical models are constantly upscaled to verify, optimize and extend the experimental data. However, the spatial concentration data during back-diffusion lacks diversity due to the limitations of pollutant species in studies, the microscopic mechanisms controlling pollutant transformation are poorly understood, and the impacts of these reactions on contaminant back-diffusion are rarely considered. Hence, most simulation models have not been adequately validated and are not capable of accurately predicting pollutant fate and cleanup in realistic heterogeneous aquifers. Based on these, some hypotheses and perspectives are mentioned to promote the investigation of contaminant migration in high- and low-permeability systems in groundwater.


  • You, Xueji
  • Liu, Shuguang
  • Dai, Chaomeng
  • Guo, Yiping
  • Zhong, Guihui
  • Duan, Yanping

publication date

  • November 2020