Publication Date

Fall 2019

Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Pat Kambesis (Director), Jason Polk, and Rick Toomey

Degree Program

Department of Geography and Geology

Degree Type

Master of Science


An often overlooked connection between karst groundwater systems and surface water is spring flow reversal, the flow of river water into karst springs caused by changes in hydraulic gradient. Karst aquifers are subject to the intrusion of river water when the hydraulic head of a base level river is higher than the hydraulic head of a base level spring. When this occurs, the flow out of the spring reverses, allowing river water to enter base level conduits. River water thus becomes a source of recharge into karst basins, transporting both valuable nutrients and harmful contaminants into karst aquifers. The rapid recharge of meteoric water, brief groundwater residence times, and the interconnection of surface and subsurface waters through a variety of karst features necessitates studying groundwater and surface water in karst landscapes as a unified system. This study examines the influence of spring flow reversal on cave dissolution in a telogenetic karst aquifer in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.

Spring flow reversals in Mammoth Cave National Park (MCNP) were first recorded nearly one-hundred years ago, but a high-resolution study measuring the effects of spring flow reversals on dissolution in MCNP, or any other telogenetic karst system, had not been conducted until recently. In this study, high-resolution data were collected for pH, SpC, temperature, and stage, as well as weekly samples for major ion concentrations, alkalinity, and carbon isotopes, from June 2018 to December 2018. Surface water and groundwater data were used to quantify the complex hydrologic processes associated with the spring flow reversals, including seasonal changes in karst geochemistry and dissolution taking place between the Green River, River Styx Spring, and Echo River Spring. Data show distinct changes in geochemical parameters as flow reversals occur, with temperature being the principal indicator of flow direction change. During this study, all ten stable reverse flows coincided with increased discharge from the Green River Dam. The predominant drivers of dissolution in the River Styx and Echo River karst basins are storm events and seasonal changes in the hydrologic regime, rather than seasonal CO2 production, normal baseflow conditions, or stable reverse flow events. Estimated dissolution rates generally show that stable reverse flows contribute no more to dissolution than normal baseflow conditions – the highest amount of dissolution during a single stable reverse flow was only 0.003 mm. This is contrary to flow reversal studies in an eogenetic karst system in Florida, which estimated 3.4 mm of wall retreat during a single spring flow reversal. These contrasting results are likely due to significant differences in pH of river water, matrix porosity of the bedrock, basin morphology, and flow conditions.


Geochemistry | Geology | Hydrology | Speleology