Aquifer configuration and geostructural links control the groundwater quality in thin-bedded carbonate–siliciclastic alternations of the Hainich CZE, central Germany
The quality of near-surface groundwater reservoirs is controlled, but also threatened, by manifold surface–subsurface interactions. Vulnerability studies typically evaluate the variable interplay of surface factors (land management, infiltration patterns) and subsurface factors (hydrostratigraphy, flow properties) in a thorough way, but disregard the resulting groundwater quality. Conversely, hydrogeochemical case studies that address the chemical evolution of groundwater often lack a comprehensive analysis of the structural buildup. In this study, we aim to reconstruct the actual spatial groundwater quality pattern from a synoptic analysis of the hydrostratigraphy, lithostratigraphy, pedology and land use in the Hainich Critical Zone Exploratory (Hainich CZE). This CZE represents a widely distributed yet scarcely described setting of thin-bedded mixed carbonate–siliciclastic strata in hillslope terrains. At the eastern Hainich low-mountain hillslope, bedrock is mainly formed by alternated marine sedimentary rocks of the Upper Muschelkalk (Middle Triassic) that partly host productive groundwater resources. Spatial patterns of the groundwater quality of a 5.4 km long well transect are derived by principal component analysis and hierarchical cluster analysis. Aquifer stratigraphy and geostructural links were deduced from lithological drill core analysis, mineralogical analysis, geophysical borehole logs and mapping data. Maps of preferential recharge zones and recharge potential were deduced from digital (soil) mapping, soil survey data and field measurements of soil hydraulic conductivities ( Ks). By attributing spatially variable surface and subsurface conditions, we were able to reconstruct groundwater quality clusters that reflect the type of land management in their preferential recharge areas, aquifer hydraulic conditions and cross-formational exchange via caprock sinkholes or ascending flow. Generally, the aquifer configuration (spatial arrangement of strata, valley incision/outcrops) and related geostructural links (enhanced recharge areas, karst phenomena) control the role of surface factors (input quality and locations) vs. subsurface factors (water–rock interaction, cross-formational flow) for groundwater quality in the multi-layered aquifer system. Our investigation reveals general properties of alternating sequences in hillslope terrains that are prone to forming multi-layered aquifer systems. This synoptic analysis is fundamental and indispensable for a mechanistic understanding of ecological functioning, sustainable resource management and protection.