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December 2010/January 2011

Natural Groundwater Quality

W Mike Edmunds and Paul Shand
Published by: Blackwell Publishing
Publication date: 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4051-5675-2 (hbk)
List price: £90.00
488 pp

EdmundsThe Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Groundwater Directive require us to describe the natural background water quality of European aquifers. But what is “natural groundwater quality”? Is there even such a thing? Humankind has globally altered the chemistry of groundwater recharge for millennia - from Palaeolithic deforestation to atmospheric hydrogen bomb testing. Happily this book does clarify this conundrum. Its aim is to present a pan-European methodology to determine natural groundwater quality. Against this, future trends of improving or deteriorating water quality can be identified, for the WFD, with consistency across the EU.

This is a well-produced book with many detailed, clear figures. It is not a textbook on aqueous chemistry, although the introductory chapters have plenty of references to more quantitative texts. (The introduction is, in my opinion, a very readable digest of groundwater chemistry principles). The book comprises two sections. First is a set of nine chapters on the characterisation of natural groundwater quality. Introductory chapters summarise the chemical processes that affect groundwater composition along flow lines. These are followed by descriptions of using numerical modelling and tracers (natural and anthropogenic) to quantify chemical processes, and to determine and interpret groundwater ages. Further chapters focus on requirements for monitoring, and statistical analyses in support of WFD assessments.

Twelve case studies of European aquifers follow including, as the only UK case, the Dorset Chalk aquifer. Each case study demonstrates the use of analytical and statistical tools described in earlier sections. There are tables of statistics in most chapters, but the value in these studies is in the application of the chemical data collated. None of the analysis techniques presented is novel, but this is a good compilation of available methods for illustrating, or reinforcing, hydrogeological conceptual models. For me, it is a shame that there is only one case study from the UK; however, most UK aquifers are covered in the baseline series of BGS/Environment Agency reports.

Use of chemical data is a powerful method for gaining understanding of flow processes within aquifers. Although not the first to do so, this book presents sufficient background, techniques and examples for this type of understanding to be readily obtained. It will serve its purpose well - of informing WFD assessments of natural background quality. But it will also be useful as an aid, and example, for interpreting regional-scale hydrogeology using data on groundwater chemistry.

Steve Buss
ESI Ltd, Shrewsbury

Climate Forcing of Geological and Geomorphological Hazards
Themed Issue (Vol.368) of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (A)

W McGuire, R Betts, C Kilburn, M Maslin, D Pyle, J Smellie & D Tappin (eds)
Published by: The Royal Society
Publication date: May, 2010
ISSN: 1471-2962
List price: £47.50
pp 2311-2588

McGuireThis publication followed the Third Johnston-Lavis Colloquium held at University College London in September 2009. Twelve research papers are included in the collection looking at potential lithospheric responses to climate change. This is an unusual perspective on the issues surrounding climate change, focusing on a plausible set of lithospheric impacts that could arise from anthropomorphic climate change – all assuming that the generally accepted “scientific consensus” of a 20C to 40C rise in global temperature occurs in the foreseeable future.

The papers can be classified as presenting evidence with respect to general concepts (x2 papers), methane hydrate feedbacks (x2), tsunami triggered by submarine slope failures (x1), mass wasting processes on land and slope instability (x2), seismicity (x2) and volcanism (x3). It would be unfair to label these as “worst case” scenarios – as they start out from what appears to be the current received position. Individually the processes described are entirely plausible, some with fascinating case histories as evidence (Huggel et al on Mt Cook and McGuire describing the Kolka glacier failure are particularly interesting), but for this reviewer the collection lacks credibility as a whole.

Anyone who deals with failure analyses in Earth systems, and in geotechnical and geomorphological processes in particular, will understand how difficult it is to pin down cause and effect in complex systems. Slopes, for example, fail due to a particular combination of events acting at a particular time, and while it is frequently the case that in engineering systems at least it is often relatively easy to isolate a change (e.g. in groundwater conditions, due perhaps to a blocked drain or a particularly intense rainfall event), in natural slope failures such deterministic conclusions are far less easily made.

If it is accepted that the scientific method comprises the formulation of a hypothesis, followed by its rigorous testing under controlled conditions, this collection of papers is only dealing with one part of that method. These are in effect a collection of hypotheses, which effectively appear to be untestable. That, of course, is not the fault of the many authors involved in producing this collection, but it is a fundamental problem with events that occur within geological rather than human time frames. Gaia’s revenge, if and when she sees fit to serve it, will be the coldest of cold dishes, and it is doubtful that anyone likely to read this volume will ever be in a position to confirm these hypotheses by direct observation.

There is plenty of evidence here for those that wish to paint a picture of how bad things could be, and given recent events like the Boxing Day tsunami, the Haitian earthquake and Chinese landslides, one could read this book and start seeing visions of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Indeed the description presented in the book of the volcanic risks associated with Iceland seems at times to be almost prescient.

The collection offers interesting base material for those teaching Earth hazards and risks, and will enable students to see beyond standard course materials. The collection as a whole raises far more questions than it answers however. This point is not lost on the authors themselves, and is covered by an interesting discussion on volcanism and climate change. Whether or not the solution to this problem advocated in the conclusion (i.e. more modelling) will ever provide us with more answers than questions is a point on which I remain to be convinced.

Keith Nicholls