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Surface, unsaturated-zone, and saturated-zone hydrologic conditions at Yucca Mountain responded to past climate variations and are at least partly preserved by sediment, fossil, and mineral records. Characterizing past hydrologic conditions in surface and subsurface environments helps to constrain hydrologic responses expected under future climate conditions and improve predictions of repository performance. Furthermore, these records provide a better understanding of hydrologic processes that operate at time scales not readily measured by other means.

Pleistocene climates in southern Nevada were predominantly wetter and colder than the current interglacial period. Cyclic episodes of aggradation and incision in Fortymile Wash, which drains the eastern slope of Yucca Mountain, are closely linked to Pleistocene climate cycles. Formation of pedogenic cement is favored under wetter Pleistocene climates, consistent with increased soil moisture and vegetation, higher chemical solubility, and greater evapotranspiration relative to Holocene soil conditions.

The distribution and geochemistry of secondary minerals in subsurface fractures and cavities reflect unsaturated-zone hydrologic conditions and the response of the hydrogeologic system to changes in temperature and percolation flux over the last 12.8 m.y. Physical and fluid-inclusion evidence indicates that secondary calcite and opal formed in air-filled cavities from fluids percolating downward through connected fracture pathways in the unsaturated zone. Oxygen, strontium, and carbon isotope data from calcite are consistent with a descending meteoric water source but also indicate that water compositions and temperatures evolved through time. Geochronological data indicate that secondary mineral growth rates are less than 1–5 mm/m.y., and have remained approximately uniform over the last 10 m.y. or longer. These data are interpreted as evidence for hydrological stability despite large differences in surface moisture caused by climate shifts between the Miocene and Pleistocene and between Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycles. Secondary mineral distribution and δ18O profiles indicate that evaporation in the shallower welded tuffs reduces infiltration fluxes. Several near-surface and subsurface processes likely are responsible for diverting or dampening infiltration and percolation, resulting in buffering of percolation fluxes to the deeper unsaturated zone.

Cooler and wetter Pleistocene climates resulted in increased recharge in upland areas and higher water tables at Yucca Mountain and throughout the region. Discharge deposits in the Amargosa Desert were active during glacial periods, but only in areas where the modern water table is within 7–30 m of the surface. Published groundwater models simulate water-table rises beneath Yucca Mountain of as much as 150 m during glacial climates. However, most evidence from Fortymile Canyon up gradient from Yucca Mountain limits water-table rises to 30 m or less, which is consistent with evidence from discharge sites in the Amargosa Desert. The isotopic compositions of uranium in tuffs spanning the water table in two Yucca Mountain boreholes indicate that Pleistocene water-table rises likely were restricted to 25–50 m above modern positions and are in approximate agreement with water-table rises estimated from zeolitic-to-vitric transitions in the Yucca Mountain tuffs (less than 60 m in the last 11.6 m.y.).

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