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The Proyecto Costa Escondida: Recent interdisciplinary research in search of freshwater along the North Coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico

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Access to potable water has always been a major concern for human settlement, and this is particularly acute in coastal areas where freshwater can be compromised by saline marine waters. The northeast portion of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula has a massive freshwater aquifer that today supports the international tourist destinations of Cancun and the Riviera Maya. However, access to this aquifer in pre‐Columbian times was restricted to natural features, such as cenotes (limestone sinkholes), aguadas (freshwater ponds), and coastal springs, or cultural features like wells, the viability of which is directly linked to sea level, which has risen over 2 m in the past 3000 years. In addition, ancient Maya inhabitants of the Yucatan collected rainwater in reservoirs, smaller‐scale cisterns called chultunes, or in ceramic pots. At the coastal site of Vista Alegre, located on the north coast of the Peninsula, there is limited evidence of potable water collection strategies, which has led members of the Proyecto Costa Escondida to critically examine how the freshwater access at the site changed over the past three millennia. To do this, the interdisciplinary research team has conducted (1) a physico‐chemical characterization of accessible surface and groundwater using a calibrated multiparameter probe, (2) a multiproxy study (i.e., micropaleontology, oxygen isotopic analysis) from 12 manual push cores taken in the waters surrounding Vista Alegre, and (3) an archaeological investigation. We hope our project serves as a model for future projects that strive to understand the complex and dynamic relationships between past peoples and their coastlines. WIREs Water 2016, 3:749–761. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1161 This article is categorized under: Engineering Water > Planning Water Science of Water > Water and Environmental Change Human Water > Water Governance
Study Area (a) A selection of Maya archaeological site with an emphasis on coastal sites on the Caribbean and north coast. (b) The port site of Vista Alegre.
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Reconstruction of meteoric water inputs and evaporation rates compared to shell beds. Chronology model shown in leftmost vertical scale, with absolute depth in core (cm) on second Y axis. Occurrence of shell beds correlates with reduced meteoric water determined based on isotopic δ18O of the sediments.Red dots represent the C14 samples along the Y axis.
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Sampled salinity around the Vista Alegre site in May (left) and December (right) 2011, which is at the end of the dry season and rainy season, respectively. Values are in PSU salinity units, where rainwater is <0.5 PSU, and 100% normal marine water is 36 PSU. All sampled waters in May 2011 were hypersaline. Only one sample in December 2011 in the Río Xuxub (lower left of image) was 3 PSU and might be considered potable.
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Salinity with distance inland from the Caribbean Coast for sites located south of Cancun and north of Sian Ka'an Biosphere. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2004). All sites located within 0.5 km from the coast are somewhat to very brackish, even grading into marine salinity. Sites further inland than 0.5 km may represent tolerable water supplies. California drinking water limit of ~1.5 mS/cm as horizontal black line. In all cases, rainwater would represent a far superior source of potable water.
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On shallow platform slopes, such as on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, even small changes in sea level may laterally displace the coastline and affect the function of spring locations. (a) The coastline and springs were located 10–100s of km from the current shoreline in the early Holocene. (b) With rising sea levels over the Holocene towards our modern high levels, the lower tiers of caves and now‐offshore springs are drowned. Global sea levels have risen 2–3 m in the last 3000 years.
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