Machine learning predictions of mean ages of shallow well samples in the Great Lakes Basin, USA

Journal of Hydrology
By: , and 



The travel time or “age” of groundwater affects catchment responses to hydrologic changes, geochemical reactions, and time lags between management actions and responses at down-gradient streams and wells. Use of atmospheric tracers has facilitated the characterization of groundwater ages, but most wells lack such measurements. This study applied machine learning to predict ages in wells across a large region around the Great Lakes Basin using well, chemistry, and landscape characteristics. For a dataset of age tracers in 961 samples, the travel time from the land surface to the sample location was estimated for each sample using parametric functions. The mean travel times were then modeled using a gradient boosting machine (GBM) algorithm with cross validation tuning of model metaparameters. The GBM approach was able to closely match estimated ages for the training data (RMSE = 0.26 natural-log scale years) and provided a reasonable match to testing data (RMSE = 0.84). Of the variables tested, well characteristics (e.g. depth), land use, hydrologic indicators (e.g. topographic wetness index), and water chemistry (e.g. nitrate, fluoride, and pH), substantially affected the predictions of age. GBM prediction was applied to 14,335 groundwater samples with median sample depth of 5.4 m, indicating for the Great Lakes Basin a broad distribution of ages among wells with a median of 32.9 years. Lag times of decades are likely for these wells to respond to changing solute fluxes near land surface. While depth variables most strongly affected predicted mean ages, chemical constituents exhibited smooth trends with age, consistent with prevailing conceptual models of evolving sources and geochemistry flowpaths. The results provide proof of concept for use of readily available variables of well, landscape, and chemical characteristics to improve groundwater age estimates across large regions.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Machine learning predictions of mean ages of shallow well samples in the Great Lakes Basin, USA
Series title Journal of Hydrology
DOI 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2021.126908
Volume 603
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center, WMA - Integrated Modeling and Prediction Division
Description 126908, 16 p.
Country United States
Other Geospatial Great Lakes basin
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