Analyzing a 10-Year Cave Drip Record in James Cave, Virginia: Implications for Storage and Recharge in Shallow Appalachian Karst Systems

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Virginia Tech

Karst aquifers, characterized by soluble rocks such as limestone and dolostone, provide drinking water to 20-25% of the world's population and are thus critical global water sources. However, recent work suggests that rapid alteration of karst aquifers due to the impact of climate change on precipitation patterns may affect recharge to these aquifers.

Much of the research on recharge in karst aquifers has relied on using patterns of spring discharge to quantify recharge. Spring outlets allow for continuous monitoring of discharge from karst aquifers, making them easily accessible monitoring sites. However, because springs can integrate multiple flow paths, it is difficult to rely on spring discharge patterns to get information on where and how karst aquifers are receiving recharge. Monitoring closer to the source of recharge through the measurement of cave drips allows for a more accurate analysis of recharge timing and mechanisms.

In this study, I conducted recession analyses on cave drip hydrographs from a 10-year record (2008-2018) of three drip monitoring stations within James Cave (Pulaski Co., VA) to: 1) examine differences in hydrologic characteristics of the epikarst (the zone of soil and weathered bedrock above a karst aquifer); 2) quantify the storage volume of the epikarst and 3) investigate seasonal, and annual trends in recharge.

Results of recession analysis show heterogeneity in epikarst hydrologic characteristics, reflected by calculations of the recession coefficient, , and storage volume. Calculations of the recession coefficient show subtle differences between the three drip sites, suggestive of spatial heterogeneity in permeability and storage in the overlying epikarst. The storage volume calculations show that during the recharge season (winter- spring), up to 95% of recharge through the unsaturated zone to the cave occurs through rapid pathways (i.e., fractures), and 5% through diffuse pathways (i.e., pores). However, during the recession period (spring-summer), when evapotranspiration is active, recharge through cave drips decreases and occurs predominantly through diffuse flow. Combined, these results underscore the importance of both spatial and temporal characterization of drip rates and other recharge inputs into karst aquifer systems.

Hydrology, cavern, groundwater