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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Interaction of groundwater flow systems and thermal regimes in mountainous terrain : a numerical study Forster, Craig Burton


It is widely recognized that topographically-driven groundwater flow can perturb conductive thermal regimes. High-relief topography amplifies the impact of factors controlling groundwater flow and advective heat transfer. A finite element method is developed to model the influence of geology, climate, surface topography and regional heat flux on steady groundwater flow and heat transfer. Because fluid viscosity (hence fluid flux) depends upon temperature, groundwater flow is influenced by the regional heat flux. As a consequence, isothermal approaches to modeling deep groundwater flow in mountains may be inappropriate. Using a free-surface approach, the water table is represented as an internal characteristic of the groundwater flow system, rather than the upper boundary for fluid flow. Thick unsaturated zones are expected in high-permeability terrain (greater than 10⁻¹⁵ m²) with arid climate, or where groundwater recharge is restricted by extensive alpine glaciers. Only vertical fluid flow is assumed to occur in the unsaturated zone, therefore, heat transfer above the water table is represented by one-dimensional advection and two-dimensional conduction. Simulation results indicate that water table elevations are highly sensitive to changes in the controlling factors, but have little impact on the thermal regime. Conductive thermal regimes are predicted in low-permeability terrain (less than 10⁻¹⁸ m²) or in high-permeability terrain with arid climate (recharge rates less than 10⁻¹¹ m/sec). Strong advective heat transfer masks the regional heat flux when permeability exceeds 10⁻¹⁶ m² in terrain with relief of 2 km over a horizontal distance of 6 km. Less than one percent of typical mean annual precipitation is transmitted through deep groundwater flow systems under these conditions. Asymmetric surface topography complicates efforts to interpret chemical and thermal data collected near the valley floor. Fracture zones outcropping at the valley floor can capture a large percentage of groundwater flowing through the system and a significant percentage of the basal heat flux. Maximum spring temperatures are indicated when bulk permeability is between 10⁻¹⁷ m² and 10⁻¹⁵ m². Outside this range, spring temperatures approach ambient air temperature. Topographically driven groundwater flow can distort and obliterate free-convection cells that might otherwise develop within a mountain massif.

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