Radioactive Surprise: Desert Oasis Water Traced Back to Nuclear Test Site

The oasis, located near Death Valley, is home to 24 species that are found nowhere else on earth.

In the middle of the dessert near Death Valley, Nevada is a water source that bubbles up 100,000 gallons of water per minute. The oasis is home to 24 species that are found no where else on earth, including an incredibly endangered Devil's Hole pupfish that numbers only around 120. Until now, the source of that water has been a mystery. But geologists from Brigham Young University have succeeded in tracing the path of the water in Ash Meadows, showing that it travels along a fault line that connects the source to...gulp...a nuclear test site.

According to LiveScience, the new research shows that Gravity Fault, the fault line acting as a conduit for the water, links the Ash Meadow oasis to its source at the Nevada Test Site - a location where the US government testing nuclear bombs for four decades, including below-ground nuclear tests that contaminated the water.

By comparing the chemical composition of 246 possible groundwater sources, Stephen Nelson, a geologist at Brigham Young University in Utah, and his team found that only the Nevada Test Site's water had a similar profile, showing it is the source for the Ash Springs oasis.

Though it is of course worrisome that such an important water source for so many species is running through an area contaminated by nuclear testing, the researchers state that the contaminated water won't likely reach the Ash Meadows spring for thousands of years. Nelson explains that based on the warm temperatures of the water, it likely comes from at least one third of a mile below the surfaces, and crosses between 31 to 37 miles to get from the Nevada Test Site and Ash Meadows.

"That's going to come out eventually, but if the water in Ash Meadows has been in the ground for 15,000 years, it's not going to be anytime soon - unless the climate gets wetter and flushes the system out," Nelson told LiveScience.

Ash Springs is home to a wildlife refuge that attracts as many as 50,000 visitors a year who are eager to see the many unique species, and over 240 species of birds drawn to the oasis (and it has a fascinating history of development-turned-refuge). The Nevada Test Site is notorious for harming humans living nearby, known as "downwinders." Now, it seems like it will have a long legacy, impacting at least one vitally important water source thousands of years in the future.

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Jaymi Heimbuch coverrs all things techy, gadgety and green for TreeHugger.