Quantifying the timing and extent of diffuse groundwater recharge is crucial for our understanding of groundwater recharge processes. However, diffuse recharge is notably difficult to measure directly. Caves can be used as natural observatories of ongoing diffuse recharge processes, and speleothems (cave carbonate deposits such as stalagmites) as archives of past recharge. Cave records can improve our understanding of diffuse recharge in the context of climate change and past climate variability.
A long-term, national monitoring program of infiltration into caves has been undertaken since 2010 using a network of over 200 automated loggers. This has been supplemented by artificial irrigation experiments at one semi-arid site. The timing of past recharge can be determined from the periods of past stalagmite growth. Recharge characteristics can be elucidated from oxygen isotope composition, with increased 18O likely caused by evaporative fractionation and increased 16O from high intensity/magnitude rainfall events.
Automated logger data identify the diffuse recharge thresholds that vary with climate and geology. Both the logged data of natural events and the artificial irrigation experiments identify significant spatial heterogeneity in recharge in these karstified systems. Water infiltrating into the karst is often depleted in the lighter oxygen isotope due to soil and shallow subsurface evaporative fractionation. Speleothem deposition is more frequent during glacial periods, presumably because recharge thresholds are lower, and their isotopic composition provides evidence of the characteristics of the recharge process.
Caves provide direct access into the unsaturated zone. Direct observation of groundwater recharge can be used to complement data from the saturated zone (boreholes) and models. The heterogeneity of recharge in karst aquifers can be directly observed and quantified. Speleothems preserve a record of groundwater recharge that can extend back for hundreds of thousands of years, providing a long-term view on the timing and variability of groundwater recharge in Australia.