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Impact of spatial variability in hydraulic parameters on plume migration within unsaturated surficial formations

Pannecoucke, Léa, Le Coz, Mathieu, Houzé, Clémence, Saintenoy, Albane, Cazala, Charlotte, de Fouquet, Chantal
Journal of hydrology 2019 v.574 pp. 160-168
databases, industrial sites, lognormal distribution, pollutants, remediation, saturated hydraulic conductivity, simulation models, solutes, surface area, texture, unsaturated flow, variance
Heterogeneities in textural properties of surficial formations at field scale result in spatial variations in hydraulic parameters governing unsaturated zone flow. This study aims at quantifying the influence of such variations on solute transport resulting from a localized source of radioactive contaminant at ground level.The study focuses on three hydraulic parameters related to the Mualem-van Genuchten formalism, namely the saturated hydraulic conductivity Ks, the parameter α inversely proportional to the air-entry value, and the parameter n related to the pore-size distribution. Sets of random fields accounting for spatial variability of these parameters are generated using lognormal distributions with different variances and correlation lengths. These random fields are used as inputs to an unsaturated flow and transport model to simulate radionuclide plume migration.Each simulated plume is characterized by its size (plume surface area), position (location of center of mass) and shape (elongation ratio) within the unsaturated zone. By comparison with the homogeneous medium, Ks-, α- and n-random fields generated with the mean variances computed through the analysis of a global soil database respectively result in average in (i) 25 (variable Ks), 20 (variable α) and 65% (variable n) increase in plume size; (ii) 0.8, 1 and 1.8 m horizontal offsets of the plume center; and (iii) 20, 30 and 50% decrease in plume circularity. In addition, changes in the variance values within one order of magnitude appear to have critical consequences only for the n parameter.The issue of spatial variability of hydraulic parameters is thus crucial for characterizing the evolution of pollutant plumes within an unsaturated zone and for developing better remediation strategies for industrial sites.