Carbonate Petrography

Carbonate petrography is the study of limestones, dolomites and associated deposits under optical or electron microscopes greatly enhances field studies or core observations and can provide a frame of reference for geochemical studies.

25 strangest Geologic Formations on Earth

The strangest formations on Earth.

What causes Earthquake?

Of these various reasons, faulting related to plate movements is by far the most significant. In other words, most earthquakes are due to slip on faults.

The Geologic Column

As stated earlier, no one locality on Earth provides a complete record of our planet’s history, because stratigraphic columns can contain unconformities. But by correlating rocks from locality to locality at millions of places around the world, geologists have pieced together a composite stratigraphic column, called the geologic column, that represents the entirety of Earth history.

Folds and Foliations

Geometry of Folds Imagine a carpet lying flat on the floor. Push on one end of the carpet, and it will wrinkle or contort into a series of wavelike curves. Stresses developed during mountain building can similarly warp or bend bedding and foliation (or other planar features) in rock. The result a curve in the shape of a rock layer is called a fold.

Groundwater Problems

Groundwater Problems

Since prehistoric times, groundwater has been an important resource that people have relied on for drinking, irrigation, and industry. Groundwater feeds the lushness of desert oases in the Sahara, the amber grain in the North American high plains, and the growing cities of sunny arid regions. 
Though groundwater accounts for about 95% of the liquid freshwater on the planet, accessible groundwater cannot be replenished quickly, and this leads to shortages. Groundwater contamination is also a growing tragedy. Such pollution, caused when toxic wastes and other impurities infiltrate down to the water table, may be invisible to us but may ruin a water supply for generations to come. In this section, we’ll take a look at problems associated with the use of groundwater supplies. 

Depletion of Groundwater Supplies 

Is groundwater a renewable resource? In a time frame of 10,000 years, the answer is yes, for the hydrologic cycle will eventually resupply depleted reserves. But in a time frame of 100 to 1,000 years the span of a human lifetime or a civilization groundwater in many regions may be a non-renewable resource. By pumping water out of the ground at a rate faster than nature replaces it, people are effectively “mining” the groundwater supply. In fact, in portions of the desert Sunbelt region of the United States, supplies of young groundwater have already been exhausted, and deep wells now extract 10,000-year old groundwater. Some of this ancient water has been in rock so long that it has become too mineralized to be usable. A number of other problems accompany the depletion of groundwater.

Effects of human modification of the water table.
  • Lowering the water table: When we extract groundwater from wells at a rate faster than it can be resupplied by nature, the water table drops. First, a cone of depression forms locally around the well; then the water table gradually becomes lower in a broad region. As a consequence, existing wells, springs, and rivers, and swamps dry up (figure above a, b). To continue tapping into the water supply, we must drill progressively deeper. Notably, the water table can also drop when people divert surface water from the recharge area. Such a problem has developed in the Everglades of southern Florida, a huge swamp where, before the expansion of Miami and the development of agriculture, the water table lay at the ground surface (figure above c, d). Diversion of water from the Everglades’ recharge area into canals has significantly lowered the water table, causing parts of the Everglades to dry up.
  • Reversing the flow direction of groundwater: The cone of depression that develops around a well creates a local slope to the water table. The resulting hydraulic gradient may be large enough to reverse the flow direction of nearby groundwater (figure below a, b). Such reversals can allow contaminants, seeping out of a septic tank, to contaminate the well.
  • Saline intrusion: In coastal areas, fresh groundwater lies in a layer above saline (salty) water that entered the aquifer from the adjacent ocean (figure below c, d). Because fresh water is less dense than saline water, it floats above the saline water. If people pump water out of a well too quickly, the boundary between the saline water and the fresh groundwater rises. And if this boundary rises above the base of the well, then the well will start to yield useless saline water. Geologists refer to this phenomenon as saline intrusion. 
  • Pore collapse and land subsidence: When groundwater fills the pore space of a rock or sediment, it holds the grains apart, for water cannot be compressed. The extraction of water from a pore eliminates the support holding the grains apart, because the air that replaces the water can be compressed. As a result, the grains pack more closely together. Such pore collapse permanently decreases the porosity and permeability of a rock, and thus lessens its value as an aquifer (figure below e, f).
Some causes of groundwater problems.
Pore collapse also decreases the volume of the aquifer, with the result that the ground above the aquifer sinks. Such land subsidence may cause fissures at the surface to develop and the ground to tilt. Buildings constructed over regions undergoing land subsidence may themselves tilt, or their foundations may crack. In the San Joaquin Valley of California, the land surface subsided by 9 m between 1925 and 1975, because water was removed to irrigate farm fields.

Natural Groundwater Quality 

Much of the world’s groundwater is crystal clear, and pure enough to drink right out of the ground. Rocks and sediment are natural filters capable of removing suspended solids these  solids get trapped in tiny pores or stick to the surfaces of  clay flakes. In fact, the commercial distribution of bottled groundwater (“spring water”) has  become a major business worldwide. But dissolved chemicals, and in some cases methane, may make some natural groundwater unusable. For example, groundwater that has passed through salt-containing strata may become salty and unsuitable for irrigation or drinking. Groundwater that has passed through limestone or dolomite contains dissolved calcium (Ca2 ) and magnesium (Mg2 ) ions; this water, called hard water, can be a problem because carbonate minerals precipitate from it to form “scale” that clogs pipes. Also, washing with hard water can be difficult because soap won’t develop a lather. Groundwater that has passed through iron-bearing rocks may contain dissolved iron oxide that precipitates to form rusty stains. Some groundwater contains dissolved hydrogen sulphide, which comes out of solution when the groundwater rises to the surface; hydrogen sulphide is a poisonous gas that has a rotten-egg smell. In recent years, concern has grown about arsenic, a highly toxic chemical that enters groundwater when arsenic-bearing minerals dissolve in groundwater. 

Human-Caused Groundwater Contamination 

Contamination plumes in groundwater.
As we’ve noted, some contaminants in groundwater occur naturally. But in recent decades, contaminants have increasingly been introduced into aquifers because of human activity (figure above a). These contaminants include agricultural waste (pesticides, fertilizers, and animal sewage), industrial waste (dangerous organic and inorganic chemicals), effluent from “sanitary” landfills and septic tanks (including bacteria and viruses), petroleum products and other chemicals that do not  dissolve in water, radioactive waste (from weapons manufacture, power plants, and hospitals), and acids leached from sulfide minerals in coal and metal mines. The cloud of contaminated groundwater that moves away from the source of contamination is called a contaminant plume (figure above b).
The best way to avoid such groundwater contamination is to prevent contaminants from entering groundwater in the first place. This can be done by placing contaminants in sealed containers or on impermeable bedrock so that they are isolated from aquifers. If such a site is not available, the storage area should be lined with plastic or with a thick layer of clay, for the clay not only acts as an aquitard, but it can bond to contaminants. Fortunately, in some cases, natural processes can clean up groundwater contamination. Chemicals may be absorbed by clay, oxygen in the water may oxidize the chemicals, and bacteria in the water may metabolize the chemicals, thereby turning them into harmless substances. 
Where contaminants do make it into an aquifer, environmental engineers drill test wells to determine which way and how fast the contaminant plume is flowing; once they know the flow path, they can close wells in the path to prevent consumption of contaminated water. Engineers may attempt to clean the groundwater by drilling a series of extraction wells to pump it out of the ground. If the contaminated water does not rise fast enough, engineers drill injection wells to force clean water or steam into the ground beneath the contaminant plume (figure above c). The injected fluids then push the contaminated water up into the extraction wells. 
More recently, environmental engineers have begun exploring techniques of bioremediation: injecting oxygen and nutrients into a contaminated aquifer to foster growth of bacteria that can react with and break down molecules of contaminants. Needless to say, cleaning techniques are expensive and generally only partially effective.

Unwanted Effects of Rising Water Tables 

We’ve seen the negative consequences of sinking water tables, but what happens when the water table rises? Is that necessarily good? Sometimes, but not always. If the water table rises above the level of a house’s basement, water seeps through the foundation and floods the basement floor. Catastrophic damage occurs when a rising water table weakens the base of a hillslope or a failure surface underground triggers landslides and slumps. 
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.

Hot Springs and Geysers

Hot Springs and Geysers

 Geothermal waters and examples of their manifestation in the landscape.
Hot springs, springs that emit water ranging in temperature from about 30° to 104°C, are found in two geologic settings. First, they occur where very deep groundwater, heated in warm bedrock at depth, flows up to the ground surface. This water brings heat with it as it rises. Such hot springs form in places where faults or fractures provide a high-permeability conduit for deep water, or where the water emitted in a discharge region followed a trajectory that first carried it deep into the crust. Second, hot springs develop in geothermal regions, places where volcanism currently takes place or has occurred recently, so that magma and/or very hot rock resides close to the Earth’s surface (figure above a). Hot groundwater dissolves minerals from rock that it passes through because water becomes a more effective solvent when hot, so people use the water emitted at hot springs as relaxing mineral baths (figure above b). Natural pools of geothermal water may become brightly coloured the gaudy greens, blues, and oranges of these pools come from thermophyllic (heat-loving) bacteria and archaea that thrive in hot water and metabolize the sulphur containing minerals dissolved in the groundwater (figure above c). 
Numerous distinctive geologic features form in geothermal regions as a result of the eruption of hot water. In places where the hot water rises into soils rich in volcanic ash and clay, a viscous slurry forms and fills bubbling mud pots. Bubbles of steam rising through the slurry cause it to splatter about in goopy drops. Where geothermal waters spill out of natural springs and then cool, dissolved minerals in the water precipitate, forming colourful mounds or terraces of travertine and other chemical sedimentary rocks (figure above d).
Under special circumstances, geothermal water emerges from the ground in a geyser (from the Icelandic spring, Geysir, and the word for gush), a fountain of steam and hot water that erupts episodically from a vent in the ground (figure above e). To understand why a geyser erupts, we first need a picture of its underground plumbing. Beneath a geyser lies a network of irregular fractures in very hot rock; groundwater sinks and fills these fractures. Heat transfers from the rock to the groundwater and makes the water’s temperature rise. Since the boiling point of water (the temperature at which water vaporizes) increases with increasing pressure, hot groundwater at depth can remain in liquid form even if its temperature has become greater than the boiling point of water at the Earth’s surface. When such “superheated” groundwater begins to rise through a conduit toward the surface, pressure in it decreases until eventually some of the water transforms into steam. The resulting expansion causes water higher up to spill out of the conduit at the ground surface. When this spill happens, pressure in the conduit, from the weight of overlying water, suddenly decreases. A sudden drop in pressure causes the super-hot water at depth to turn into steam instantly, and this steam quickly rises, ejecting all the water and steam above it out of the conduit in a geyser eruption. Once the conduit empties, the eruption ceases, and the conduit fills once again with water that gradually heats up, starting the eruptive cycle all over again. 
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.

Tapping Groundwater Supplies

Tapping Groundwater Supplies 

We can obtain groundwater at wells or springs. Wells are holes that people dig or drill to obtain water. Springs are natural outlets from which groundwater flows. Wells and springs provide welcome sources of water but must be treated with care if they are to last.


Pumping groundwater at a normal well affects the water table.
In an ordinary well, the base of the well penetrates an aquifer below the water table (figure above a). Water from the pore space in the aquifer seeps into the well and fills it to the level of the water table. Drilling into an aquitard, or into rock that lies above the water table, will not supply water, and thus yields a dry well. Some ordinary wells are seasonal and function only during the rainy season, when the water table rises. During the dry season, the water table lies below the base of the well, so the well is dry.
To obtain water from an ordinary well, you either pull water up in a bucket or pump the water out. As long as the rate at which groundwater fills the well exceeds the rate at which water is removed, the level of the water table near the well remains about the same. However, if users pump water out of the well too fast, then the water table sinks down around the well, in a process called drawdown, so that the water table becomes a downward-pointing, cone-shaped surface called a cone of depression (figure above b, c). Drawdown by a deep well may cause shallower wells that have been drilled nearby to run dry. 

Artesian wells, where water rises from the aquifer without pumping.
An artesian well, named for the province of Artois in France, penetrates confined aquifers in which water is under enough pressure to rise on its own to a level above the surface of the aquifer. If this level lies below the ground surface, the well is a nonflowing artesian well. But if the level lies above the ground surface, the well is a flowing artesian well, and water actively fountains out of the ground (figure above a). Artesian wells occur in special situations where a confined aquifer lies beneath a sloping aquitard. 
We can understand why artesian wells exist if we look first at the configuration of a city water supply (figure above b). Water companies pump water into a high tank that has a significant hydraulic head relative to the surrounding areas. If the water were connected by a water main to a series of vertical pipes, pressure caused by the elevation of the water in the high tank would make the water rise in the pipes until it reached an imaginary surface, called a potentiometric surface, that lies above the ground. This pressure drives water through water mains to household water systems without requiring pumps. In an artesian system, water enters a tilted, confined aquifer that intersects the ground in the hills of a high-elevation recharge area (figure above c). The confined groundwater flows down to the adjacent plains, which lie at a lower elevation. The potentiometric surface to which the water would rise, were it not confined, lies above this aquifer. Pressure in the confined aquifer pushes water up a well.


Many towns were founded next to springs, places where groundwater naturally flows or seeps onto the Earth’s surface, for springs can provide fresh, clear water for drinking or irrigation, without the expense of drilling or digging. Some springs spill water onto dry land. Others bubble up through the bed of a stream or lake. Springs form under a variety of conditions: 

Geological settings in which springs form.
  • Where the ground surface intersects the water table in a discharge area (figure above a); such springs typically occur in valley floors, where they may add water to lakes or streams. 
  • Where flowing groundwater collides with a steep, impermeable barrier, and pressure pushes it up to the ground along the barrier (figure above b). 
  • Where a perched water table intersects the surface of a hill (figure above c).
  • Where downward-percolating water runs into a relatively impermeable layer and migrates along the top surface of the layer to a hillslope (figure above d). 
  • Where a network of interconnected fractures channels groundwater to the surface of a hill (figure above e). 
  • Where the ground surface intersects a natural fracture (joint) that taps a confined aquifer in which the pressure is sufficient to drive the water to the surface; such an occurrence is an artesian spring. 
Springs can provide water in regions that would otherwise be uninhabitable. For example, oases in deserts may develop around a spring. An oasis is a wet area, where plants can grow, in an otherwise bone-dry region.
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.

Groundwater Flow

Groundwater Flow

What happens to groundwater over time? Does it just sit, unmoving, like the water in a stagnant puddle, or does it flow and eventually find its way back to the surface? Countless measurements confirm that groundwater enjoys the latter fate groundwater indeed flows, and in some cases it moves great distances underground. Let’s examine factors that drive groundwater flow. 
In the unsaturated zone the region between the ground surface and the water table water percolates straight down, like the water passing through a drip coffee maker, for this water moves only in response to the downward pull of gravity. But in the zone of saturation the region below the water table water flow is more complex, for in addition to the downward pull of gravity, water responds to differences in pressure. Pressure can cause groundwater to flow sideways, or even upward. (If you've ever watched water spray from a fountain, you've seen pressure pushing water upward.) Thus, to understand the nature of groundwater flow, we must first understand the origin of pressure in groundwater. For simplicity, we’ll consider only the case of groundwater in an  unconfined aquifer. 

The shape of water table beneath hilly topography.
Pressure in groundwater at a specific point underground is caused by the weight of all the overlying water from that point up to the water table. (The weight of overlying rock does not contribute to the pressure exerted on groundwater, for the contact points between mineral grains bear the rock’s weight.) Thus, a point at a greater depth below the water table feels more pressure than does a point at lesser depth. If the water table is horizontal, the pressure acting on an imaginary horizontal reference plane at a specified depth below the water table is the same everywhere. But if the water table is not horizontal, as shown in above, the pressure at points on a horizontal reference plane at depth changes with location. For example, the pressure acting at point p1, which lies below the hill in figure above, is greater than the pressure acting at point p2, which lies below the valley, even though both p1 and p2 are at the same elevation. 
Both the elevation of a volume of groundwater and the pressure within the water provide energy that, if given the chance, will cause the water to flow. Physicists refer to such stored energy as potential energy. The potential energy available to drive the flow of a given volume of groundwater at a location is called the hydraulic head. To measure the hydraulic head at a point in an aquifer, hydrogeologists drill a vertical hole down to the point and then insert a pipe in the hole. The height above a reference elevation (for example, sea level) to which water rises in the pipe represents the hydraulic head water rises higher in the pipe where the head is higher. As a rule, groundwater flows from regions where it has higher hydraulic head to regions where it has lower hydraulic head. This statement generally implies that groundwater regionally flows from locations where the water table is higher to locations where the water table is lower. 

The flow of groundwater.
Hydrogeologists have calculated how hydraulic head changes with location underground, by taking into account both the effect of gravity and the effect of pressure. These calculations reveal that groundwater flows along concave-up curved paths, as illustrated in cross section (figure above a, b). These curved paths eventually take groundwater from regions where the water table is high (under a hill) to regions where the water table is low (below a valley), but because of flow-path shape, 
some groundwater may flow deep down into the crust along the first part of its path and then may flow back up, toward the ground surface, along the final part of its path. The location where water enters the ground (where the flow direction has a downward trajectory) is called the recharge area, and the location where groundwater flows back up to the surface is called the discharge area (see figure above a). 
Flowing water in an ocean current moves at up to 3 km per hour, and water in a steep river channel can reach speeds of up to 30 km per hour. In contrast, groundwater moves at less than a snail’s pace, between 0.01 and 1.4 m per day (about 4 to 500 m per year). Groundwater moves much more slowly than surface water, for two reasons. First, groundwater moves by percolating through a complex, crooked network of tiny conduits, so it must travel a much greater distance than it would if it could follow a straight path. Second, friction between groundwater and conduit walls slows down the water flow. 
Simplistically, the velocity of groundwater flow depends on the slope of the water table and the permeability of the material through which the groundwater is flowing. Thus, groundwater flows faster through high-permeability rocks than it does through low-permeability rocks, and it flows faster in regions where the water table has a steep slope than it does in regions where the water table has a gentle slope. For example, groundwater flows relatively slowly (2 m per year) through a low-permeability aquifer under the Great Plains, but flows relatively quickly (30 m per year) through a high-permeability aquifer under a steep hillslope. In detail, hydrogeologists use Darcy’s Law to determine flow rates at a location.

Darcy’s Law for Groundwater Flow 

 The level to which water rises in a drill hole is the hydraulic head (h). The hydraulic gradient (HG) is the difference in head divided by the length of the flow path.
The rate at which groundwater flows at a given location depends on the permeability of the material containing the groundwater; groundwater flows faster in a more permeable material than it does in a less permeable material. The rate also depends on the hydraulic gradient, the change in hydraulic head per unit of distance between two locations, as measured along the flow path. 
To calculate the hydraulic gradient, we divide the difference in hydraulic head between two points by the distance between the two points as measured along the flow path. This can be written as a formula:
hydraulic gradient = h1 - h2/j
where h1 - h2 is the difference in head (given in meters or feet, because head can be represented as an elevation) between two points along the water table, and j is the distance between the two points as measured along the flow path. A hydraulic gradient exists anywhere that the water table has a slope. Typically, the slope of the water table is so small that the path length is almost the same as the horizontal distance between two points. So, in general, the hydraulic gradient is roughly equivalent to the slope of the water table. 
In 1856, a French engineer named Henry Darcy carried out a series of experiments designed to characterize factors that control the velocity at which groundwater flows between two locations (1 and 2),  each of which has a different hydraulic head (h1 and h2). Darcy represented the velocity of flow by a quantity called the discharge (Q), meaning the volume of water passing through an imaginary vertical plane perpendicular to the groundwater’s flow path in a given time. He found that the discharge depends on the the hydraulic head (h1- h2); the area (A) of the imaginary plane through which the groundwater is passing; and a number called the hydraulic conductivity  (K). The hydraulic conductivity represents the ease with which a fluid can flow through a material. This, in turn, depends on many factors (such as the viscosity and density of the fluid), but mostly it reflects the permeability of the material. The relationship that Darcy discovered, now known as Darcy’s law, can be written in the form of an equation as:
Q = KA(h1 - h2)/j 
The equation states that if the hydraulic gradient increases, discharge increases, and that as conductivity increases, discharge increases. Put in simpler terms, the flow rate of groundwater increases as the permeability increases and as the slope of the water table gets steeper.
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.

Where Does Groundwater Reside?

Where does groundwater reside?

Groundwater as we know the drinking water which is pulled out of the ground, where does it comes from?

The Underground Reservoir 

Water moves among various reservoirs during the hydrologic cycle. Of the water that falls on land, some evaporates directly back into the atmosphere, some gets trapped in glaciers, and some becomes runoff that enters a network of streams and lakes that drains to the sea. The remainder sinks or percolates downward, by a process called infiltration, into the ground. In effect, the upper part of the crust behaves like a giant sponge that can soak up water.
Of the water that does infiltrate, some descends only into the soil and wets the surfaces of grains and organic material making up the soil. This water, called soil moisture, later evaporates back into the atmosphere or gets sucked up by the roots of plants and transpires back into the atmosphere. But some water sinks deeper into sediment or rock, and along with water trapped in rock at the time the rock formed, makes up groundwater. Groundwater slowly flows underground for anywhere from a few months to tens of thousands of years before returning to the surface to pass once again into other reservoirs of the hydrologic cycle. 

Porosity: Open Space in Rock and Regolith 

Contrary to popular belief, only a small proportion of underground water occurs in caves. Most groundwater resides in  relatively small open spaces between grains of sediment or between grains of seemingly solid rock, or within cracks of various sizes. The term pore refers to any open space within a volume of sediment, or within a body of rock, and the term porosity refers to the total amount of open space within a material, specified as a percentage. For example, if we say that a block of rock has 30% porosity, then 30% of the block consists of pores. Geologists distinguish between two basic kinds of porosity primary and secondary.

Porosity is the open space in rock or sediment, whereas permeability is the degree to which the pores are connected.
Primary porosity develops during sediment deposition and during rock formation (figure above a,b). It includes the pores between clastic grains that exist because the grains don’t fit together tightly during deposition. Secondary porosity refers to new pore space produced in rocks some time after the rock first formed. For example, when rocks fracture, the opposing walls of the fracture do not fit together tightly, so narrow spaces remain in between. Thus, joints and faults may provide secondary porosity for water (figure above c). As groundwater passes through rock, it may dissolve and remove some minerals, creating solution cavities that also provide secondary porosity.

Permeability: The Ease of Flow 

If solid rock completely surrounds a pore, the water in the pore cannot flow to another location. For groundwater to flow, pores must be linked by conduits (openings). The ability of a material to allow fluids to pass through an interconnected network of pores is a characteristic known as permeability. Groundwater flows easily through a material, such as loose gravel, that has high permeability. In gravel, the water is able to pass quickly from pore to pore, so if you pour water into a gravel-filled jar, it will trickle down to the bottom of the jar, where it displaces air and fills the pores (figure above d). In tightly packed sediments or in rock, the water flows more slowly because it follows a tortuous path through tiny conduits. Water flows slowly or not at all through an impermeable material. Put another way, an impermeable material has low permeability or even no permeability. The permeability of a material depends on several factors:
  • Number of available conduits: As the number of conduits increases, permeability increases. 
  • Size of the conduits: More fluids can travel through wider conduits than through narrower ones. 
  • Straightness of the conduits: Water flows more rapidly through straight conduits than it does through crooked ones. 
Note that the factors that control permeability in rock or sediment resemble those that control the ease with which traffic moves through a city. Traffic can flow quickly through cities with many straight, multilane boulevards, whereas it flows slowly through cities with only a few narrow, crooked streets. Porosity and permeability are not the same feature. A material whose pores are isolated from each other can have high porosity but low permeability. 

Aquifers and Aquitards 

Water in the ground-aquifers, aquitards and the water table.
With the concept of permeability in mind, hydrogeologists distinguish between an aquifer, sediment or rock with high permeability and porosity, and an aquitard, sediment or rock that does not transmit water easily and therefore retards the motion of water. An aquifer that is not overlain by an aquitard is an unconfined aquifer. Water can infiltrate down into an unconfined aquifer from the Earth’s surface, and groundwater can rise to reach the Earth’s surface from an unconfined aquifer. An aquifer that is overlain by an aquitard is a confined aquifer its water is isolated from the ground surface (figure above a).

The Water Table 

Infiltrating water can enter permeable sediment and bedrock by percolating along cracks and through conduits connecting pores. Nearer the ground surface, water only partially fills pores, leaving some space that remains filled with air (figure above b). The region of the subsurface in which water only partially fills pores is called the unsaturated zone. Deeper down, water completely fills, or saturates, the pores. This region is the saturated zone. In a strict sense, geologists use the term “groundwater” specifically for subsurface water in the saturated zone, where water completely fills pores. 
The term water table refers to the horizon that separates the unsaturated zone above from the saturated zone below. Typically, surface tension, the electrostatic attraction of water molecules to each other and to mineral surfaces, causes water to seep up from the water table (just as water rises in a thin straw), filling pores in the capillary fringe, a thin layer at the base of the unsaturated zone. Note that the water table forms the top boundary of groundwater in an unconfined aquifer. 
The depth of the water table in the subsurface varies greatly with location. In some places, the water table defines the surface of a permanent stream, lake, or marsh, and thus effectively lies above the ground level (figure above c). Elsewhere, the water table lies hidden below the ground surface. In humid regions, it typically lies within a few meters of the surface, whereas in arid regions, it may lie hundreds of meters below the surface. Rainfall rates affect the water table depth in a given locality  (figure above d) the water table drops during the dry season and rises during the wet season. Streams or ponds that hold water during the wet season may, therefore, dry up during the dry season because their water infiltrates into the ground below.

Topography of the Water Table 

Factors that influence the position of the groundwater.
In hilly regions, if the subsurface has relatively low permeability, the water table is not a planar surface. Rather, its shape mimics, in a subdued way, the shape of the overlying topography (figure above a). This means that the water table lies at a higher elevation beneath hills than it does beneath valleys. But the relief (the vertical distance between the highest and lowest elevations) of the water table is not as great as that of the overlying land, so the surface of the water table tends to be smoother than that of the landscape. 
At first thought, it may seem surprising that the elevation of the water table varies as a consequence of ground-surface topography. After all, when you pour a bucket of water into a pond, the surface of the pond immediately adjusts to remain horizontal. The elevation of the water table varies because groundwater moves so slowly through rock and sediment that it cannot quickly assume a horizontal surface. When rain falls on a hill and water infiltrates down to the water table, the water table rises a little. When it doesn't rain, the water table sinks slowly, but so slowly that when rain falls again, the water table rises before it has had time to sink very far. 
k (such as shale) may lie within a thick aquifer. A mound of groundwater accumulates above such aquitard lenses. The result is a perched water table, a groundwater top surface that lies above the regional water table because the underlying lens of impermeable rock or sediment prevents the groundwater from sinking down to the regional water table (figure above b).
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.