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Aquitard characteristics of clay-rich till deposits in East Anglia, Eastern England

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  • Agricultural Science
  • Chemistry
  • Design
  • Earth Science


An extensive area of Quaternary glacial deposits (Lowestoft Till) of Elsterian (Anglian) age overlies the regionally important Cretaceous Chalk aquifer in East Anglia in Eastern England. The glacial deposits act as an aquitard potentially affording protection from surface-derived, mainly agricultural contaminants. However, there has been little previous research on the physical and chemical characteristics of the glacial tills and contained pore waters in East Anglia to demonstrate this benefit. Hence, this study presents the results from the drilling of two boreholes in northern and southern East Anglia (at Morley and Cowlinge, respectively) and the construction of a high-pressure squeezing rig to obtain pore water for major and minor ion, stable isotope (d18O, d2H) and dissolved organic carbon analysis. Special features of the mechanical squeezing rig included a high diameter-to-length ratio of the squeezer, dual seepage faces and a unique pore water collection system designed to eliminate the risk of alteration of in situ pore water redox characteristics. The hydrochemistry of the pore waters is found to be controlled by: (i) incongruent carbonate dissolution given the high proportion of chalk clasts contained in the till; (ii) cation exchange in the unweathered, clay-rich till; and (iii) pyrite oxidation associated with the mineralogy of both the chalk and clay material content that comprises the till matrix. The clay material is sourced from Upper Jurassic clays (Oxford and Kimmeridge Clay Formations) found to the west of the region. These clays are also considered to be the source of organic material contributing relatively high concentrations of dissolved organic carbon (above 2 mg/L) found in till pore waters below the soil zone. Concentrations of dissolved inorganic constituents increase with depth with a high total dissolved solids (TDS) content in excess of 1500 mg/L measured in the unweathered till below a depth of 5 m below ground level, with the highest concentrations (maximum of 3738 mg/L) associated with low-permeability, clay-rich till. The stable isotope composition of the pore waters, with mean values for d18O and d2H of -7.01‰ and -51.7‰ at Cowlinge and -6.44‰ and 49.9‰ at Morley, respectively, are similar to local meteoric water and indicate that groundwater recharge of the tills has occurred during the Holocene in the last 10,000 years. Overall, the physical and chemical characteristics of the Lowestoft Till suggest only limited groundwater recharge of the order of 10 mm/a or less in interfluve areas where the till deposits are greater than 15 m thick; although higher rates are expected where the till becomes more sand-rich, for example at valley margins and also northwards in East Anglia where the Lowestoft Till is influenced by the component of Anglian ice that advanced from the north, containing sand material derived from the floor of the North Sea Basin.

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