Regional scale evaluation of nitrate fluctuations in groundwater using cluster analysis and standardised hydrometeorological indices

Ascott, M.J.; Gooddy, D.C.; Marchant, B.; Kieboom, N.; Bray, H.; Gomes, S.. 2024 Regional scale evaluation of nitrate fluctuations in groundwater using cluster analysis and standardised hydrometeorological indices. Journal of Hydrology, 634, 131052.

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Temporal fluctuations in nitrate in groundwater can result in concentrations temporarily exceeding drinking water standards. This can bring about the need for costly water treatment or blending. Despite this, the extent and potential controls on these fluctuations are poorly understood, particularly at regional to national scales. Applied to Southeast England (UK), here we develop the first application of cluster analysis and standardised hydrometeorological indices to evaluate nitrate fluctuations in groundwater at the regional scale. Hierarchical and K-means cluster analysis of 96 groundwater nitrate time series for the period 1995–2022 showed that nitrate time series can be divided into 4 clusters: (1) long term increasing trends (n = 23, mean trend = 0.26 mg NO3/l/a), (2) long term decreasing trends (n = 19, mean trend = − 0.65 mg NO3/l/a), (3) long term increasing trends with seasonal fluctuations (n = 24, mean trend = 0.29 mg NO3/l/a) and (4) long term increasing trends superimposed on near-decadal scale fluctuations (n = 30, mean trend = 0.22 mg NO3/l/a). Boreholes in cluster 1 appear to be deeper than boreholes in cluster 2. In comparison to shallower boreholes, deeper boreholes are likely to be intersecting longer groundwater flow systems where nitrate concentrations are affected by historic “legacy nitrate” leaching. There is weak spatial coherence in the clustering, with clusters 3 and 4 present in the South and North Downs respectively. Cross-correlation analysis between groundwater nitrate time series with precipitation and groundwater level indices showed that rapid seasonal fluctuations in nitrate concentrations in cluster 3 in the South Downs are associated with rapidly responding groundwater level fluctuation. This is likely due to the highly fractured and faulted nature of the Chalk aquifer in this area. This is in contrast with the slower near-decadal fluctuations in cluster 4 in the North Downs. The strongest correlations between groundwater levels and nitrate concentrations in cluster 3 occurred when cross-correlating at a lag of zero months, which would suggest that matrix diffusion is unlikely to be a significant control on nitrate seasonality. Seasonal fluctuations in nitrate concentrations are likely to be associated with a combination of piston displacement at the water table and changing groundwater flow paths to the borehole. Future climate change may change the magnitude and timing of seasonal fluctuations caused by these processes. The methodology developed here is generic and can be applied wherever there is a large body of groundwater nitrate time series data.

Item Type: Publication - Article
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ISSN: 00221694
Date made live: 13 Mar 2024 16:18 +0 (UTC)

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