Monday, May 21, 2018

W. Bengal Bangladesh- Geologic Controls On Arsenic Distribution In Ground Water

Science writer  Priyanka Pulla has written an excellent article exploring the geologic, socio-economic and technological issues related to the widespread arsenic contamination of groundwater in W. Bengal. Sadly, the government response to this crisis has been slow.

I thought I would elaborate on the geological question -  Why are Arsenic (As) levels much higher in shallower Holocene age aquifers and lower in the deeper Pleistocene age aquifer? The answer encompasses mineralogy, climate change, sea level changes and bacteria.

The ultimate source of As are high Himalayan rocks and Indo-Burman ranges with additional contributions from the Precambrian terrains of Peninsular India and the Siwalik hills.  Minerals like biotite, magnetite, illmenite, olivine, pyroxene, amphiboles contain As. These minerals release As when they undergo weathering in catchment areas and deposits of the alluvial plains. This As is absorbed on secondary minerals like Fe hydroxides like goethite. Such Fe hydroxides are authigenic, i.e. they grow in the shallow buried sediments of the alluvial plains. Under oxidizing conditions, As is immobile, sequestered in Fe hydroxides. However,  conditions may change, and these sediments may get overlain by or be redeposited in environments rich in organic material. Certain bacterial species living on this organic material break down these Fe hydroxides, using the oxygen for their metabolism, and releasing Fe and As into the groundwater. This is known as reductive dissolution of Fe hydroxides and is the principal mechanism for As entering the groundwater in the alluvial plains of Bangladesh and West Bengal.

During the Pleistocene.. 1) the high Himalaya was glaciated. Therefore, important sources of As like the Fe-Mg rich rocks of the Indus ophiolite belt (slices of oceanic crust that existed between India and Asia which have been thrust up during continental collision) and high grade metamorphic rocks such as schists and gneisses were covered in ice and not releasing sediment. Indian cratonic areas, the Siwalik foothills  and the Indo-Burman ranges were being eroded, but overall less As was making its way on to alluvial plains. 2) Since climate was cooler and drier, there was less organic material accumulating in sediment of alluvial plains. Conditions were oxidizing and As remained sequestered in Fe hydroxide minerals. 3) Sea level was much lower then. Almost the entire continental shelf was dry land. Ganga and Brahmaputra met the sea much to the south of present shoreline. Reducing environments like delta front marshes, ponds, estuaries, existed much to the south.

Sedimentary conditions changed by 12-15 thousand years ago. Glacial melt exposed As bearing rocks in high Himalaya. As a result, more As made its way on to alluvial plains. Importantly, sea level rose and flooded the continental shelf. The Pleistocene delta front reducing environments were drowned. Shorelines shifted northwards. The climate was warmer, encouraging vegetation growth. Reducing delta front environments like swamps, coastal marshes and lakes developed on previous alluvial plain sediments.

The map below shows the position of shorelines between 7 thousand and 4 thousand years ago along with the location of wells with high levels of As. This study focuses on Bangladesh but similar conditions existed in West Bengal as well. The sea has receded 2- 3 meters to its present location since 4 thousand years ago.  The delta front and shoreline belt that existed 4-7 thousand years ago is now a densely inhabited region .

 Source: Quaternary shoreline shifting and hydrogeologic influence on the distribution of groundwater arsenic in aquifers of the Bengal Basin- M. Shamsudduha, Ashraf Uddin 2007

Notice clustering of wells with high As along the past shorelines. Here, organic rich delta marshes and swamps developed. Bacterial reduction of Fe hydroxides released As in to groundwater.

As distribution also shows correlation with topography. This map shows high As levels in groundwater coinciding with topographic lows. Such low lying areas accumulate more fine sediment and organic material. Again, this will apply also to W. Bengal.

 Source: Quaternary shoreline shifting and hydrogeologic influence on the distribution of groundwater arsenic in aquifers of the Bengal Basin- M. Shamsudduha, Ashraf Uddin 2007

So, a change in climate and shifts in sedimentary environments in response to changing sea level from Pleistocene to Holocene exerted a strong control on As distribution in the alluvial plains of Bangladesh and W. Bengal. 

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