Articles | Volume 18, issue 2
Research article
05 Feb 2014
Research article |  | 05 Feb 2014

Spatially resolved information on karst conduit flow from in-cave dye tracing

U. Lauber, W. Ufrecht, and N. Goldscheider

Abstract. Artificial tracers are powerful tools for investigating karst systems. Tracers are commonly injected into sinking streams or dolines, while springs serve as monitoring sites. The obtained flow and transport parameters represent mixed information from the vadose, epiphreatic and phreatic zones (that is, the aquifer remains a black box). Accessible active caves constitute valuable but underexploited natural laboratories to gain detailed insights into the hydrologic functioning of the aquifer. Two multi-tracer tests in the catchment of a major karst spring (Blautopf, Germany) with injections and monitoring in two associated water caves aimed at obtaining spatially and temporally resolved information on groundwater flow in different compartments of the system. Two tracers were injected into the caves to characterize the hydraulic connections between them and with the spring. Two injections at the land surface, far from the spring, aimed at resolving the aquifer's internal drainage structure. Tracer breakthrough curves were monitored by field fluorimeters in caves and at the spring. Results demonstrate the dendritic drainage structure of the aquifer. It was possible to obtain relevant flow and transport parameters for different sections of this system. The highest mean flow velocities (275 m h−1) were observed in the near-spring epiphreatic section (open-channel flow), while velocities in the phreatic zone (pressurized flow) were one order of magnitude lower. Determined conduit water volumes confirm results of water balances and hydrograph analyses. In conclusion, experiments and monitoring in caves can deliver spatially resolved information on karst aquifer heterogeneity and dynamics that cannot be obtained by traditional investigative methods.