Edited by: Ellen E. Wohl



Groundwater represents the terrestrial subsurface component of the hydrologic cycle. As such, groundwater is generally in motion, moving from elevated areas of recharge to lower areas of discharge. Groundwater usually moves in accordance with Darcy’s law (Dalmont, Paris: Les Fontaines Publiques de la Ville de Dijon, 1856). Groundwater residence times can be under a day in small upland catchments to over a million years in subcontinental-sized desert basins. The broadest definition of groundwater includes water in the unsaturated zone, considered briefly here. Water chemically bound to minerals, as in gypsum (CaSO4 • 2H2O) or hydrated clays, cannot flow in response to gradients in total hydraulic head (pressure head plus elevation head); such water is thus usually excluded from consideration as groundwater. In 1940, M. King Hubbert showed Darcy’s law to be a special case of thermodynamically based potential field equations governing fluid motion, thereby establishing groundwater hydraulics as a rigorous engineering science (Journal of Geology 48, pp. 785–944). The development of computer-enabled numerical methods for solving the field equations with real-world approximating geometries and boundary conditions in the mid-1960s ushered in the era of digital groundwater modeling. An estimated 30 percent of global fresh water is groundwater, compared to 0.3 percent that is surface water, 0.04 percent atmospheric water, and 70 percent that exists as ice, including permafrost (Shiklomanov and Rodda 2004, cited under Groundwater Occurrence). Groundwater thus constitutes the vast majority—over 98 percent—of the unfrozen fresh-water resources of the planet, excluding surface-water reservoirs. Environmental dimensions of groundwater are equally large, receiving attention on multiple disciplinary fronts. Riparian, streambed, and spring-pool habitats can be sensitively dependent on the amount and quality of groundwater inputs that modulate temperature and solutes, including nutrients and dissolved oxygen. Groundwater withdrawals can negatively impact riparian habitats by depriving ecosystems of adequate fresh water and fragmenting communities when streams go dry. Biochemical reactions in shallow groundwater can remove anthropogenically elevated nitrogen compounds and reduce—but only to a point—the greening of waterways and shorelines with periphyton and harmful algal blooms. Groundwater extraction for beneficial use is increasingly limited by water-quality constraints imposed by naturally occurring and introduced substances. Overdrafting can cause land-surface subsidence, damaging buildings and roads and disrupting canals, sewers, and other gravity-flow conveyances. Increases in groundwater levels can cause soil salinization in dry regions and erosive sapping and flooding in wet regions. Coastal saltwater intrusion, groundwater flooding, salinization associated with groundwater-irrigated agriculture, induced seismicity from injected wastes, and the detrimental impacts of groundwater depletion are among the major environmental challenges of our time.

Additional publication details

Publication type Book chapter
Title Groundwater
DOI 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0053
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher Oxford University Press
Contributing office(s) Toxic Substances Hydrology Program, National Research Program - Western Branch
Description HTML document
Larger Work Title Oxford Bibliographies in Environmental Science
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N