Get access

Origin and Extent of Fresh Paleowaters on the Atlantic Continental Shelf, USA


  • Correction added after online publication September 15, 2009: on page 7, in Equation 9, the value in the square root should have read: “1-(ξ/L)2“. We apologize for this error.

Hydrology Program, New Mexico Tech, NM 87801; (575) 835-6506; fax (575) 835-6436;


While the existence of relatively fresh groundwater sequestered within permeable, porous sediments beneath the Atlantic continental shelf of North and South America has been known for some time, these waters have never been assessed as a potential resource. This fresh water was likely emplaced during Pleistocene sea-level low stands when the shelf was exposed to meteoric recharge and by elevated recharge in areas overrun by the Laurentide ice sheet at high latitudes. To test this hypothesis, we present results from a high-resolution paleohydrologic model of groundwater flow, heat and solute transport, ice sheet loading, and sea level fluctuations for the continental shelf from New Jersey to Maine over the last 2 million years. Our analysis suggests that the presence of fresh to brackish water within shallow Miocene sands more than 100 km offshore of New Jersey was facilitated by discharge of submarine springs along Baltimore and Hudson Canyons where these shallow aquifers crop out. Recharge rates four times modern levels were computed for portions of New England's continental shelf that were overrun by the Laurentide ice sheet during the last glacial maximum. We estimate the volume of emplaced Pleistocene continental shelf fresh water (less than 1 ppt) to be 1300 km3 in New England. We also present estimates of continental shelf fresh water resources for the U.S. Atlantic eastern seaboard (104 km3) and passive margins globally (3 × 105 km3). The simulation results support the hypothesis that offshore fresh water is a potentially valuable, albeit nonrenewable resource for coastal megacities faced with growing water shortages.