Environmental Geophysics & Hydrology:

The Undergraduate & Graduate Program in the
Department of Geological Sciences at
Brown University
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General. Environmental geophysics and hydrology is a relatively new initiative at Brown University, and involves the application of geophysical methods and computer modeling to environmental investigations of groundwater flow, watershed dynamics, subsurface hazardous waste assessment and contaminant migration. This program draws on an extensive departmental tradition in computer modeling and field research as well as on the broad resources of interdisciplinary activity in environmental science and engineering throughout the university. While investigating problems relevant to local communities in the Northeast U. S., paradigms are developed for addressing analogous concerns on the national and international scale. Our approach is to interface computational applications in the laboratory (numerical methods, data analysis, inverse theory and scientific visualization) with an active field program in environmental geophysics (employing ground penetrating radar, seismic, gravity, resistivity, electromagnetic and magnetic methods), in order to study specific problems in the following topical areas. Through a cost-sharing arrangement between Brown University and private sector partners, the Environmental Geophysics/Hydrology program has recently added over $50,000 of new instrumentation and computers for field and laboratory use.

Applications to Groundwater, Hydrogeology and Watershed Analysis. Surface geophysics is used to non-invasively determine the depth to the water table for unconfined aquifers, to characterize the distribution of soil moisture in the unsaturated zone, and to delineate the depth, thickness, and lateral dimensions of groundwater aquifers. In a follow-up mode, geophysics might define features which control aquifer recharge or discharge, such as underground channels in unconsolidated sediments, fracture zones in bedrock, impoundment features and so forth.

On the larger scale of entire watersheds, this program is exploring the interaction of subsurface conditions with the dynamics of precipitation, infiltration, overland flow, streamflow generation and flooding. The direct contribution of groundwater to the outflow from most watersheds and estuarine environments is largely unknown. How can surface geophysics along with refined flow models be used to understand these processes?

Applications to Environmental Assessment & Remediation. Surface geophysics can be used for assessing the presence and potential impact of subsurface hazardous materials & chemical contamination. While "base-line" information is essential for a preliminary assessment of a hazardous waste site, the use of "blind" test borings and trenching should be discouraged puncturing even one drum of certain common, but extremely toxic, products could enormously complicate the site remediation and restoration, and astronomically escalate the cost of cleanup. Geophysics is the only investigatory technique that is noninvasive of the subsurface. As a means of identifying and characterizing the source and migration of chemical contaminants in the groundwater system, geophysical studies can remotely detect buried drums, pipelines, underground storage tanks, and, in some cases, remotely delineate the distribution of contaminant plumes. When used early in such investigations, these studies can optimize (or modify) plans for follow on activity, such as investigatory test coring, test pits and trenching. If site remediation and restoration are called for, surface geophysical studies can then serve as a prelude to developing a comprehensive engineering work-plan, and, in some cases, assessing the success of a remediation activity.

Particular Educational Resources at Brown University. This program is especially directed toward students with backgrounds in engineering, physics and mathematics, but is also open to students with more general interests. While specialized courses in geophysics, hydrology, chemical migration, and related areas of geology are offered through this program, students are expected to take the initiative in tailoring their course work and research to their own particular interests and professional needs. Students are thus encouraged, through a closely supervised advisory system, to explore related courses and research activities in environmental engineering, environmental policy, and ecology, as available in the departments of Engineering, Environmental Studies, Applied Math, Physics, Computer Science, Biology, Chemistry, Sociology and Economics, among others.

For Information Contact:

John F. Hermance
Environmental Geophysics/Hydrology
Department of Geological Sciences
324 Brook Street
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912-1846 e-mail: John_Hermance@Brown.Edu