Water Chemistry: Water Chemistry and Groundwater Flow

Faculty mentor: Ken Voglesonger

The Yucatán Peninsula has some unique geological features called cenotes, which are natural passageways that connect activities on the surface to the groundwater below. Cenotes are commonly used for recreation and represent a major portion of the tourism industry in the Cancún area. This year, in conjunction with the groundwater flow team, we are particularly interested in examining how water chemistry might vary with groundwater inputs and outputs to cenotes. Can we use water chemistry to determine if there are different sources for groundwater flow, and can we use that information to determine groundwater flow on a more regional scale? Some ideas about ways to do this:

  • Working with the groundwater flow team, identify potential inflows and outflows in cenotes
  • Devise a way to sample groundwater inflow
  • Analyze the inorganic chemistry of the samples to characterize potential sources of groundwater flow.

This project will involve the chemical analysis of major anions and cations, nitrogen (NO2-, NO3-, NH4+), dissolved oxygen (O2, aq), other important geochemical parameters to fully characterize the samples retrieved from the cenotes. It will also involve analysis of the data to determine how the different samples are geochemically related. Through this work, we can start to identify not only how water moves into and out of the cenotes, but also gain some insight into how the different cenotes are connected, and if they share a similar source. Students will learn to create a sampling plan, collect and preserve water samples from cenotes and perform different types of chemical and biological analyses.

This project will consist of one faculty mentor and 1-2 students. While candidates are suggested to have background in general chemistry, geology/earth science, and environmental science, all interested students are welcome.

Groundwater Flow and UAV

Faculty mentor: Melissa Lenczewski

The main geology of the peninsula is karst. The karst is evident on the surface with collapse features and cenotes throughout the whole area. The lack of soil and the surface conduits allow contaminant releases at the surface to spread into the freshwater. Drinking water comes from an unconfined aquifer located 10-50 m below the surface with a saline water interface below that. This unconfined and coastal aquifer gradient is influenced by increased pumping for freshwater supplies and by diurnal tidal action.

As tourism increases so does the need for fresh water. The well field for southern Cancún and Puerto Morelos is just west of the Cancún International Airport along the Ruta de los Cenotes. This well field contains over 75 wells, each pumping fresh water out of the aquifer. Without the pumping, the aquifer flows into the ocean. The research questions are: do the low turbidity cenotes have the highest velocity?  Which directions to the flow?  Is the point of entry into the cenote have the geochemistry signature of sites upgradient? 

This project will use an Aquadopp to determine groundwater flow and direction throughout cenotes and link to organic and inorganic geochemistry.  We will work with the other teams to understand the physical flow of the system. We will also use UAVs (drones) to help collect water from cenotes and visually document them.  The outcomes from this research will allow for better planning and management of the limited freshwater resources in the Yucatán Peninsula.

This project will consist of one faculty mentor and two students. While candidates are suggested to have background in geology/earth science, engineering, and environmental science, all interested students are welcome.

Microplastics in Coral Reefs and Cenotes

Mentors: Chit Wityi Oo and Gilberto Acosta Gonzalez

In recent decades, coastal and marine environments have faced various challenges caused by pollution caused by plastic litter, including microplastics (MP), and it is expected that between 61% and 87% of global environmental litter world are plastic. MPs particles can come from secondary sources when larger plastics disintegrate and fragment, or from primary sources when they are manufactured that size (< 5 mm). At a global level, the presence of MPs has been observed in marine environments, such as coral reefs and mangroves, and they have been found in water, sediment and in the digestive tract of organisms of practically all trophic levels, since these organisms by confusion or intentionally ingest these MPs particles and integrate them into the food web. The intake of MPs can alter the secretion, digestion and absorption processes of the digestive organs and influence metabolic processes and even behavioral changes of organisms. This can affect the abundance of some populations and affect the biodiversity of reef systems. Scientists predict that coral reefs (very diverse and spectacular ecosystems) could be strongly affected by MPs pollution. Sediments in reef systems become an important element to analyze the presence and abundance of MPs, since various studies suggest sediments as a final sink for MPs particles in aquatic environments. In sediments in coral reefs (Arabian Sea) it has been recorded that they present MPs particles (154 particles/kg), however, the information on MPs in the reef systems in the Mexican Caribbean is practically non-existent. The coral reefs located in the State of Quintana Roo in Mexico are part of the Mesoamerican reef system, the second most important barrier reef in the world and which generates many benefits to coastal populations through fishing and tourism.

To effectively address the threat of MPs pollution in the coral reef ecosystems of the Mexican Caribbean, it is highly necessary to generate information on this emerging contaminant. Therefore, the present research aims to evaluate the types, abundance, colors and sizes of MPs in the sediment of the Puerto Morelos reef, Mexico. Through this study, research will be carried out to analyze MPs in the surface sediment at three study sites, in a gradient from the beach sand to the back reef. This would be the first evidence in the context of Puerto Morelos and the Mexican Caribbean that analyzes the abundance of MPs in the coral reef ecosystem by obtaining samples in a gradient with respect to the coast. The findings of this study will reveal important information about MPs pollution in coral reef ecosystems in the Mexican Caribbean, which will be useful for the protection of coral reef ecosystems.

Currently there is very little knowledge and expertise on MP residues in freshwater resources and its potential impact that has become a topic of attracting the attention of public and authorities. MP contamination in the Yucatan Peninsula Karst Aquifer (YPKA) is of special interest due to the region’s main source of water supply. The cenotes in Yucatan Peninsula are given extra special attention, considering that they receive discharges through runoff, tourism activities, and other river systems. 

This study will determine the occurrence of MP. To increase our sampling in groundwater and coral reefs, the project will conduct testing MP in the drinking water of homes that utilize private potable wells. Since it has been challenging for the innovative analysis techniques, NIU is developing the MP laboratory that will provide with the 8700 Laser Direct Infrared (LDIR) chemical imaging system which is fully automated microplastics workflow suited to the analysis of MP particles in environmental samples, food, and more. Within the project period, the pretreatment methods for MP extraction will be performed at the CICY’s laboratory and all MP analyses will be conducted at NIU’s microplastic laboratory.

The outcomes from this research will allow for better understanding of MP occurrence in freshwater with updated innovative instrument and help in increased public awareness leading to policies to reduce the use of plastics for water environment sustainability.

This project will consist of two faculty mentors and two to three students. While candidates are suggested to have background in oceanography, geology/earth science, chemistry and environmental science, all interested students are welcome.

Contaminants of Emerging Concerns: Pesticides, Antibiotics and Sunscreens

Mentors: Kevin Tucker and Rosa Maria Leal-Bautista

Yucatán peninsula is expecting to double its population in a short period of time ( for 2030) due to the promotion of mayor infrastructures like Maya train, Bridge over Nichupte Laguna those projects promote the rise of anthropogenic activities that in consequence would bring the use of several emergent contaminants, thus the relative influence of emergent contaminants related to recreational or touristic activities could be overpassed by new type of contaminants more related to household activities or workshops, thus to assess the rise, type variation, special distribution and its influence in the water conditions as resource and aquatic ecosystem it’s a situation that needs to be addressed at its develop.

Monitoring contaminants of emerging concern, including antibiotics, sunscreens, and pesticides, in cenotes in the Yucatan, Mexico, is of particular importance for several reasons:

Ecological Significance: Cenotes are natural sinkholes or water-filled caves found in the Yucatan Peninsula. They are often interconnected with underground rivers and serve as critical habitats for unique and fragile ecosystems. Contaminants from human activities can disrupt the balance of these ecosystems, potentially leading to species loss and ecological damage.

Drinking Water Source: Cenotes are a crucial source of freshwater in the Yucatan Peninsula, providing drinking water for both local communities and tourists. Contaminants such as antibiotics, pesticides, and other emerging pollutants can find their way into cenotes through runoff, leaching, and wastewater discharges.

Agricultural Practices: The Yucatan Peninsula is home to agriculture, and pesticides are commonly used in farming activities. Pesticides can enter cenotes through surface runoff and groundwater contamination, potentially affecting both the cenote ecosystems and the quality of drinking water derived from them.

Antibiotics and Sunscreens are quantified by liquid chromatography while the pesticides will be quantified using gas chromatography. Extractions for each class of compound will be performed on-site and analysis will be performed either at CICY or SIUE based on instrument availability.

By monitoring antibiotics, sunscreens, and pesticides, we will be contributing to datasets that allow informed decision-making and the implementation of effective pollution control measures to mitigate the impacts of contaminants on cenotes and their surroundings.

This project will consist of two faculty mentors and two to three students. While candidates are suggested to have background in organic chemistry, geology/earth science, and environmental science, all interested students are welcome.

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