Determination of natural backgrounds and thresholds of nitrate in South Korean groundwater using model-based statistical approaches

Kyoung Ho Kim, Seong Taek Yun, Hyun Koo Kim, Ji Wook Kim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

58 Citations (Scopus)


Increased nitrate loading of groundwater has emerged as a major environmental problem in many countries, including South Korea. This study aims to evaluate the nitrate levels of South Korean groundwater on a regional (national) scale and specifically to demonstrate the procedure to better estimate the natural background level (NBL) and threshold of nitrate as the basis of groundwater management. For this work, nitrate data of groundwater (n=8510) in two major hydrogeologic units (alluvium and bedrock) were collected from the National Groundwater Monitoring Network (NGMN) of South Korea. Four supplementary datasets (n=1074) were also used to test the rationality of estimated thresholds by comparing them with NGMN datasets. Compared with the data reported in many countries, the nitrate concentrations in NGMN groundwater in 2009 are high, with median values of 12.2 and 8.7mg/L, respectively, for alluvial groundwater and bedrock groundwater. The nitrate levels of South Korean groundwater seem to have been historically steady at these high levels between 1997 and 2009, suggesting widespread diffusive contamination since the 1980s. The NBLs and anthropogenic polluted levels (APLs) of nitrate on a regional (national) scale are statistically established by the model-based approach using a finite normal (Gaussian) two-component mixture model, because (1) the sample size (frequency) of the natural background group is much smaller than that of the polluted group, as a result of widespread nitrate contamination, and (2) nitrate concentrations are more or less affected by natural attenuation processes. Accordingly, thresholds of nitrate (as the concentration level indicating groundwater pollution) are selected as the lower limits (i.e., 10th percentile) of the polluted group, which are 3.0 and 5.5mg/L NO3 -, respectively, for bedrock groundwater and alluvial groundwater. This study provides a practical guideline for national groundwater management, based on a heuristic procedure to statistically determine the NBLs and thresholds in the case of groundwater systems with pervasive contamination. Compared with the other classical methods to estimate NBLs, the model-based approach using a finite normal-mixture model can be more effective to reasonably separate the polluted samples from a regional (or national) dataset.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)196-205
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Geochemical Exploration
Publication statusPublished - 2015 Jan 1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Economic Geology
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


Dive into the research topics of 'Determination of natural backgrounds and thresholds of nitrate in South Korean groundwater using model-based statistical approaches'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this