Articles | Volume 20, issue 3
Research article
08 Mar 2016
Research article |  | 08 Mar 2016

Fault damage zone volume and initial salinity distribution determine intensity of shallow aquifer salinisation in subsurface storage

Elena Tillner, Maria Langer, Thomas Kempka, and Michael Kühn

Abstract. Injection of fluids into deep saline aquifers causes a pore pressure increase in the storage formation, and thus displacement of resident brine. Via hydraulically conductive faults, brine may migrate upwards into shallower aquifers and lead to unwanted salinisation of potable groundwater resources. In the present study, we investigated different scenarios for a potential storage site in the Northeast German Basin using a three-dimensional (3-D) regional-scale model that includes four major fault zones. The focus was on assessing the impact of fault length and the effect of a secondary reservoir above the storage formation, as well as model boundary conditions and initial salinity distribution on the potential salinisation of shallow groundwater resources. We employed numerical simulations of brine injection as a representative fluid.

Our simulation results demonstrate that the lateral model boundary settings and the effective fault damage zone volume have the greatest influence on pressure build-up and development within the reservoir, and thus intensity and duration of fluid flow through the faults. Higher vertical pressure gradients for short fault segments or a small effective fault damage zone volume result in the highest salinisation potential due to a larger vertical fault height affected by fluid displacement. Consequently, it has a strong impact on the degree of shallow aquifer salinisation, whether a gradient in salinity exists or the saltwater–freshwater interface lies below the fluid displacement depth in the faults. A small effective fault damage zone volume or low fault permeability further extend the duration of fluid flow, which can persist for several tens to hundreds of years, if the reservoir is laterally confined. Laterally open reservoir boundaries, large effective fault damage zone volumes and intermediate reservoirs significantly reduce vertical brine migration and the potential of freshwater salinisation because the origin depth of displaced brine is located only a few decametres below the shallow aquifer in maximum.

The present study demonstrates that the existence of hydraulically conductive faults is not necessarily an exclusion criterion for potential injection sites, because salinisation of shallower aquifers strongly depends on initial salinity distribution, location of hydraulically conductive faults and their effective damage zone volumes as well as geological boundary conditions.

Short summary
The degree of shallow aquifer salinisation triggered by fluid injection into deeper brine-bearing aquifers and brine upward migration through hydraulically conductive faults strongly depends on the regional depth of the freshwater-saltwater boundary, since displaced brines originate only from the upper fault damage zones in the study area. The highest local salinity increase in shallow aquifers occurs in case of closed model boundaries and low fault damage zone volumes.