Aquifer (World of Earth Science)
An aquifer is a body of sand or porous rock capable of storing and producing significant quantities of water. An aquifer may be a layer of loose gravel or sand, a layer of porous sandstone, a limestone layer, or even an igneous or metamorphic body of rock. An aquifer may be only a few feet to hundreds of feet thick. Aquifers occur near the surface or buried thousands of feet below the surface. It may have an aerial extent of thousands of square miles or a few acres. The key requirements are that the layer or body has sufficient porosity to store the water, sufficient permeability to transmit the water, and be at least partly below the water table. The water table is the elevation of the top of the completely saturated (phreatic) zone. Above the water table is the vadose or unsaturated zone where the pore spaces are only partially saturated and contain a combination of air and water.
Porosity and permeability are important measures of producibility in aquifers. Porosity is the ratio of the volume of voids in a rock or soil to the total volume. Porosity determines the storage capacity of aquifers. In sand or sedimentary rocks, porosity is the space between grains and the volume of open space (per volume) in fractures. In dense rocks such as granite, porosity is contained largely within the crack and/or fracture system. Permeability is the capacity of a rock for transmitting a fluid, and is a measure of the relative ease with which a fluid can be produced from an aquifer.
A rock that yields large volumes of water at high rates must have many interconnected pore spaces or cracks. A dense, low porosity rock such as granite can be an adequate aquifer only if it contains an extensive enough system of connected fractures and cracks to be permeable. In the shallow subsurface, this is common because nearly all (indurate) rocks are fractured, often heavily. For that reason, caution should be exercised before assuming a low porosity rock will be an aquitard (impermeable body) and not an aquifer.
Fluid pressure, measured in pounds per square inch (psi), in an aquifer depends on whether it is unconfined or confined. An unconfined aquifer is one that is hydraulically open or connected to the surface. Examples would include sand bodies on or near the surface and more deeply buried layers of rock or sand connected to the surface by fractures and/or faults. The fluid pressure in unconfined aquifers is equivalent to what one would measure at a point in a standing body of water and would increase linearly (at a constant rate) with depth. The elevation of the top surface of an unconfined aquifer is free to fluctuate with rainfall.
A confined aquifer is one that is surrounded on all sides by an aquitard, a formation that does not transmit fluid. The pressure in a confined aquifer can be different from that of an unconfined aquifer at the same elevation. A body of sand surrounded on all sides by a soft, impermeable clay or shale serves as a typical example.
See also Hydrogeology; Saturated zone; Water table