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Operator-splitting errors in coupled reactive transport codes for transient variably saturated flow and contaminant transport in layered soil profiles

Jacques, D., Simunek, J., Mallants, D., van Genuchten, M.T.
Journal of contaminant hydrology 2006 v.88 no.3-4 pp. 197-218
soil profiles, simulation models, evapotranspiration, soil pollution, biogeochemistry, pollutants, unsaturated flow, soil transport processes, layered soils, hydrologic models, saturated flow
One possible way of integrating subsurface flow and transport processes with (bio)geochemical reactions is to couple by means of an operator-splitting approach two completely separate codes, one for variably-saturated flow and solute transport and one for equilibrium and kinetic biogeochemical reactions. This paper evaluates the accuracy of the operator-splitting approach for multicomponent systems for typical soil environmental problems involving transient atmospheric boundary conditions (precipitation, evapotranspiration) and layered soil profiles. The recently developed HP1 code was used to solve the coupled transport and chemical equations. For steady-state flow conditions, the accuracy was found to be mainly a function of the adopted spatial discretization and to a lesser extent of the temporal discretization. For transient flow situations, the accuracy depended in a complex manner on grid discretization, time stepping and the main flow conditions (infiltration versus evaporation). Whereas a finer grid size reduced the numerical errors during steady-state flow or the main infiltration periods, the errors sometimes slightly increased (generally less than 50%) when a finer grid size was used during periods with a high evapotranspiration demand (leading to high pressure head gradients near the soil surface). This indicates that operator-splitting errors are most significant during periods with high evaporative boundary conditions. The operator-splitting errors could be decreased by constraining the time step using the performance index (the product of the grid Peclet and Courant numbers) during infiltration, or the maximum time step during evapotranspiration. Several test problems were used to provide guidance for optimal spatial and temporal discretization.