The soils above caves represent a membrane that regulates the connection between the underground environment and the outside atmosphere. In this study, soils from two different field sites (Cueva de Altamira and Cueva del Rull in Spain) are investigated. Field results are analysed and linked to laboratory tests. Several laboratory experiments are performed to quantify CO2 diffusion coefficients and water infiltration rates in these soils under different degrees of soil water saturation and compaction.
Tests confirm that the grain size distribution, organic matter content, mineral composition and water content of soils affect gas transport through the soil pore network. Both field and lab results reveal that Altamira soil has a coarser texture and therefore has higher CO2 diffusion coefficients, infiltration rates and hydraulic conductivity values than Rull soil. Rull soil contains a higher proportion of fine particles and organic matter, which explains the lower fluid transport coefficients.
When soils are near saturation, fluid transport does not depend on the physical properties of soil but depends on the soil water content. In this state, liquid transport regulates the available space within the soil pores, which leads to a reduction in the gaseous diffusion coefficient of the soil. After rainfall episodes, the connection between the exterior atmosphere and underground cavities is hindered due to a rise in the soil water content, which is responsible for the closure of the overlying membrane. This study demonstrates that soil-produced CO2 reaches the underground atmosphere through diffusion processes that are controlled by the intrinsic properties of soil (porosity, grain size distribution, texture, mineralogy and organic matter content) and soil water content.
Keywords: CO2, Soil gas diffusion, Water content, Underground cave, Vadose zone