January 5, 2021
Journal Article

Background Concentrations of Argon-39 in Shallow Soil Gas

James Hayes
Brad Fritz
Thomas Alexander
Emily Mace
Christine Johnson
Brian Milbrath


While radioisotopes of noble gases are known to be indicators of underground nuclear explosions (UNE), McIntyre et al. (2017) was the first to report the presence of 39Ar in shallow soil gas in association with a decades old UNE. While this finding hinted at the potential application of 39Ar to be used as an indicator of an UNE, doing so would also require an understanding of the natural concentrations of 39Ar present in soil gas. Without knowing the expected range and variability of naturally occurring concentrations of 39Ar, it is difficult to determine what measured concentrations would be indicative of an elevated concentration. This paper presents results from 16 soil gas samples and three atmospheric air samples collected from various locations across the western United States. Shallow soil gas samples were collected into self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) tanks using a custom-built soil gas sampling system and then processed and analyzed for 39Ar. The measured concentrations of 39Ar varied from atmospheric air concentrations to about 3.5 times atmospheric air concentrations. The variation in concentration was primarily attributed to the latitude the sample was collected at, which was consistent with previous work (Johnson et al. 2015). The results presented here represent the first measurements of natural background 39Ar concentrations in shallow soil gas. This data will be necessary if 39Ar is to be used as an indicator of UNE.

Revised: January 5, 2021 | Published: March 1, 2021


Fritz B.G., T.R. Alexander, C.M. Johnson, E.K. Mace, B.D. Milbrath, and J.C. Hayes. 2021. "Background Concentrations of Argon-39 in Shallow Soil Gas." Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 228. PNNL-SA-155605. doi:10.1016/j.jenvrad.2020.106513