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Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT)

Updated: Mar 22, 2020

Electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) or electrical resistivity imaging (ERI) is a geophysical technique for imaging sub-surface structures from electrical resistivity measurements made at the surface, or by electrodes in one or more boreholes. If the electrodes are suspended in the boreholes, deeper sections can be investigated. It is closely related to the medical imaging technique electrical impedance tomography (EIT), and mathematically is the same inverse problem. In contrast to medical EIT, however, ERT is essentially a direct current method. A related geophysical method, induced polarization (or spectral induced polarization), measures the transient response and aims to determine the subsurface chargeability properties.

With the advancement in the field of Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT) from 1D to 2D and now-a- days 3D, ERT has explored many fields. The applications of ERT include fault investigation, ground water table investigation, soil moisture content determination and many others. In industrial process imaging ERT can be used in a similar fashion to medical EIT, to image the distribution of conductivity in mixing vessels and pipes. In this context it is usually called Electrical Resistance Tomography, emphasising the quantity that is measured rather than imaged.


The acquisition of resistivity data involves the injection of current into the ground via a pair of electrodes and then the resulting potential field is measured by a corresponding pair of potential electrodes. The field set-up requires the deployment of an array of regularly spaced electrodes, which are connected to a central control unit via multi-core cables. Resistivity data are then recorded via complex combinations of current and potential electrode pairs to build up a pseudo cross-section of apparent resistivity beneath the survey line. The depth of investigation depends on the electrode separation and geometry, with greater electrode separations yielding bulk resistivity measurements from greater depths.

The recorded data are transferred to a PC for processing. In order to derive a cross-sectional model of true ground resistivity, the measured data are subject to a finite-difference inversion process via RES2DINV (ver 5.1) software.

Data processing is based on an iterative routine involving determination of a two-dimensional (2D) simulated model of the subsurface, which is then compared to the observed data and revised. Convergence between theoretical and observed data is achieved by non-linear least squares optimisation. The extent to which the observed and calculated theoretical models agree is an indication of the validity of the true resistivity model (indicated by the final root-mean-squared (RMS) error).

The true resistivity models are presented as colour contour sections revealing spatial variation in subsurface resistivity. The 2D method of presenting resistivity data is limited where highly irregular or complex geological features are present and a 3D survey maybe required. Geological materials have characteristic resistivity values that enable identification of boundaries between distinct lithologies on resistivity cross-sections. At some sites, however, there are overlaps between the ranges of possible resistivity values for the targeted materials which therefore necessitates use of other geophysical surveys and/or drilling to confirm the nature of identified features.

Constraints: Readings can be affected by poor electrical contact at the surface. An increased electrode array length is required to locate increased depths of interest therefore the site layout must permit long arrays. Resolution of target features decreases with increased depth of burial.

As part of a hydrological study, a series of resistivity tomography profile lines were acquired to map variations within the overburden thickness. The example section above displays an extensive erosional channel feature together with more subtle overburden thickness variations.

A 3D resistivity survey was carried out to map the lateral and vertical extent of buried foundations. The grey zones represent noisy data due to buried services and the high resistivity values (red) reflect the foundation material. The resistivity suggest that the foundations extend to a maximum depth of 2m.


Just like GPR, ERI can produce 2D or 3D subsurface images. The difference is that, compared to GPR, ERI provides images with lower resolutions but deeper investigation depths. In one hand, the minimal sizes of targets are typically in feet instead of inches; in the other hand, its investigation depth can easily reach 50 feet or more. Applications of ERI include but not limited to:

  • Sinkhole/void locating

  • Mapping of depth to bedrock

  • Groundwater table investigation

  • Mapping of bedrock fracture zones

  • Mapping extents of conductive contaminant plumes

  • Landfill delineation

  • Archaeological site mapping

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