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J Contam Hydrol. 2001 Nov;52(1-4):245-75.

Variable-density groundwater flow and solute transport in heterogeneous porous media: approaches, resolutions and future challenges.

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School of Chemistry, Physics and Earth Sciences, Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia.


In certain hydrogeological situations, fluid density variations occur because of changes in the solute or colloidal concentration, temperature, and pressure of the groundwater. These include seawater intrusion, high-level radioactive waste disposal, groundwater contamination, and geothermal energy production. When the density of the invading fluid is greater than that of the ambient one, density-driven free convection can lead to transport of heat and solutes over larger spatial scales and significantly shorter time scales than compared with diffusion alone. Beginning with the work of Lord Rayleigh in 1916, thermal and solute instabilities in homogeneous media have been studied in detail for almost a century. Recently, these theoretical and experimental studies have been applied in the study of groundwater phenomena, where the assumptions of homogeneity and isotropy rarely, if ever, apply. The critical role that heterogeneity plays in the onset as well as the growth and/or decay of convective motion is discussed by way of a review of pertinent literature and numerical simulations performed using a variable-density flow and solute transport numerical code. Different styles of heterogeneity are considered and range from continuously "trending" heterogeneity (sinusoidal and stochastic permeability distributions) to discretely fractured geologic media. Results indicate that both the onset of instabilities and their subsequent growth and decay are intimately related to the structure and variance of the permeability field. While disordered heterogeneity tends to dissipate convection through dispersive mixing, an ordered heterogeneity (e.g., sets of vertical fractures) allows instabilities to propagate at modest combinations of fracture aperture and separation distances. Despite a clearer understanding of the processes that control the onset and propagation of instabilities, resultant plume patterns and their migration rates and pathways do not appear amenable to prediction at present. The classical Rayleigh number used to predict the occurrence of instabilities fails, in most cases, when heterogeneous conditions prevail. The incorporation of key characteristics of the heterogeneous permeability field into relevant stability criteria and numerical models remains a challenge for future research.

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