Transport of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases through the unsaturated zone to the water table is affected by gas diffusion, air–water exchange (solubility), sorption to the soil matrix, advective–dispersive transport in the water phase, and, in some cases, anaerobic degradation. In deep unsaturated zones, this may lead to a time lag between entry of gases at the land surface and recharge to groundwater. Data from a Danish field site were used to investigate how time lag is affected by variations in water content and to explore the use of simple analytical solutions to calculate time lag. Numerical simulations demonstrate that either degradation or sorption of CFC-11 takes place, whereas CFC-12 and CFC-113 are nonreactive. Water flow did not appreciably affect transport. An analytical solution for the period with a linear increase in atmospheric CFC concentrations (approximately early 1970s to early 1990s) was used to calculate CFC profiles and time lags. We compared the analytical results with numerical simulations. The time lags in the 15-m-deep unsaturated zone increase from 4.2 to between 5.2 and 6.1 yr and from 3.4 to 3.9 yr for CFC-11 and CFC-12, respectively, when simulations change from use of an exponential to a linear increase in atmospheric concentrations. The CFC concentrations at the water table before the early 1990s can be estimated by displacing the atmospheric input function by these fixed time lags. A sensitivity study demonstrates conditions under which a time lag in the unsaturated zone becomes important. The most critical parameter is the tortuosity coefficient. The analytical approach is valid for the low range of tortuosity coefficients (τ = 0.1–0.4) and unsaturated zones greater than approximately 20 m in thickness. In these cases the CFC distribution may still be from either the exponential or linear phase. In other cases, the use of numerical models, as described in our work and elsewhere, is an option.

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