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Effective hydraulic conductivities in unsaturated heterogeneous media by Monte Carlo simulation

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When modeling flow and transport through unsaturated heterogeneous geological deposits, it may be neither computationally nor technically feasible to account for the actual heterogeneity in the simulations. One would fall short in terms of technical feasibility because there is simply no way that the entire spatial domain could be characterized (e.g., you cannot measure hydraulic conductivity at every location at a site). With respect to computational feasibility, the non-linear nature of the Richards equation (which is used to model the flow process) makes simulation of most sites extremely computationally intensive. The computational roadblock is being dismantled as computer hardware advances, but our inability to precisely characterize geological heterogeneity is expected to remain with us for a very long time. To address this problem, the analyst typically uses average or ‘effective’ properties to model flow and transport behavior through heterogeneous media. In this paper, a variety of approaches for developing effective unsaturated flow properties are assessed. Computational results have been obtained which give the hydraulic conductivity ratios (K parallel/K nomal) for highly nonisotropic layered materials. These results are compared with analytical models. Good agreement was obtained for all soil saturation levels except for extremely dry conditions.

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This work was performed at Sandia National Laboratories, which is operated for the U.S. Department of Energy under contract number DE-AC04-76DP00789.

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Eaton, R.R., McCord, J.T. Effective hydraulic conductivities in unsaturated heterogeneous media by Monte Carlo simulation. Transp Porous Med 18, 203–216 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00616931

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Key words

  • heterogeneity
  • effective properties
  • hydraulic conductivity