Collaborative Research: A Pilot Study for Electromagnetic Surveying of Freshwater Resources Beneath the US Atlantic Continental Shelf

Lead PI: Kerry Key

Unit Affiliation: Marine and Polar Geophysics, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

June 2017 - March 2018
North America
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: Supplies of fresh drinking water typically come from aquifers deep below the surface. These aquifer units do not stop at the shoreline, but instead extend offshore for perhaps hundreds of kilometers, carrying freshwater with them. In some cases, it is suspected that isolated bodies of freshwater may exist, emplaced during periods of time when sea level was much lower than it is today. Although the presence of large volumes of freshwater beneath the continental shelf is likely a global phenomenon, estimates of the extent of potential resources vary widely. A recent modeling study suggests that as much as 1300 km3 of fresh water could be trapped off the New England shore. For reference, the city of New York consumes roughly 1.5 km3 per year. As freshwater resources become increasingly stressed, many nations will need to exploit these valuable resources in a manner that does not result in contamination of the freshwater supply. Although we suspect that extensive freshwater exists offshore, our knowledge of where the water can be found is limited to drilling sites where samples have been collected. For example, it has been known for ~40 years that a substantial body of freshwater can be found offshore New Jersey. However, drilling gives only point measurements and is prohibitively expensive when large areas need to be studied. What is missing are tools capable of mapping the subsurface that are sensitive to fresh groundwater and for mapping deposits in new areas where water supplies onshore are scarce.  This research takes advantage of electromagnetic surveying tools that were initially developed by academia, but which have been adopted and expanded by the petroleum industry. These tools measure how well the seafloor can conduct electrical current and, as a result, are sensitive to changes in the salinity of water in the subsurface because fresh water conducts current less than seawater. The electromagnetic methods that will be used in this projet are the only non-invasive means available to detect the presence of fresh-water in the subsurface and to map these layers over length-scales of tens of kilometers. In this research, the project will characterize the spatial distribution of sub-seafloor fresh water beneath the continental shelf of the US Atlantic coast in two locations: off Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, and the offshore New Jersey. Broader impacts of the work include providing a proof of concept that electromagnetics can be effectively used to detect freshwater reserves in the offshore marine environment.