Synopsis

Stable isotopes d18O and d2H in the water cycle can be used as tracers in water resource sustainability, climate research, food provenance and authenticity, and human and ecological forensics. Fractionation during phase changes and mixing through the hydrological cycle make d18O and d2H useful as hydrological tracers.

In Australia we are highly dependent on underground water for drinking and irrigation, particularly in rural and regional areas. Comparing d18O and d2H in rainfall, river water and groundwater can tell us how the groundwater got there – in many parts of Australia groundwater only recharges during large floods! Many cities and towns in Australia get their drinking water from big dams – the difference between rainfall and tap water isotopes can tell us how much of our water is being lost from evaporation. Food and agricultural products also contain d18O and d2H, and we can potentially use these isotopes to prove where they were grown or to detect adulteration – such as adding tap water to a product. Stable isotopes d18O, d2H in hair keratin and fingernails reflect what you eat and drink – and that can give us clues to where you have been living. This also applies to wildlife forensics.

All these applications need us to understand what determines the isotopes in rainfall and how that changes on the way to the tap or wetland or crop or product.

We have a unique decade long data set of monthly rainfall and tap data from 14 towns and cities around Australia available for Honours project work. To interpret this for use in water resources, provenance, or forensics we need to analyse what is happening with water supply and climate at each of those locations, and to manage the data and results in a useable way. You can also conduct your own tap water survey to supplement this data. Your project will enable us to apply this data for a wide variety of applications and can be aligned to your area of interest and skills: environmental science, civil or environmental engineering, physics, modelling or data management would be helpful backgrounds for this project.

This project is a collaboration with Dr. Cath Hughes and her ANSTO research team.

Aims

Determine how the isotopic signature of drinking water supplies are affected by rainfall, catchment processes and evaporation around Australia, and create value added data products that can deliver benefits to a range of industries.

Student Benefits

You will have the chance to work with a unique and valuable isotope dataset that has practical applications for water management, food provenance and forensics. You’ll receive training in various aspects of data science (data handling screening and management), time series and spatial analysis and hands-on environmental monitoring skills (data download, equipment maintenance). You will need to work with water supply corporations to obtain relevant information and will gain skills in industry engagement. There will be an opportunity to gain laboratory experience in the analysis of water samples for stable isotopes.

You’ll be strongly encouraged to publish your honours work in an international journal, which will help enormously if you choose to apply for a scholarship to undertake postgraduate studies.

Supervisors work closely with honours students and are interested in honours projects. Students will get plenty of guidance, but will have the opportunity to create their own direction too. 

Supervisor: Prof Andy Baker