Numerical and analytical modeling of flow partitioning in partially saturated fracture networks
Abstract
Infiltration processes in fractured-porous media remain a crucial, yet not very well understood component of recharge and vulnerability assessment. Under partially-saturated conditions flows in fractures, percolating fracture networks, and fault zones contribute to the fastest spectrum of infiltration velocities via preferential pathways. Specifically, the partitioning dynamics at fracture intersections determine the magnitude of flow fragmentation into vertical and horizontal components and hence the bulk flow velocity and dispersion of fracture networks. In this work, we derive an approximate analytical solution for the partitioning process and validate it using smoothed particle hydrodynamics simulations. The developed transfer function is conceptually based on simulation results and laboratory experiments carried out in previous works. It allows to efficiently simulate flow through fracture networks with simple cubic structure and arbitrary number of fractures and aperture sizes via linear response theory and convolution of a given input signal. We derive a non-dimensional bulk flow velocity ($\widetilde{v}$) and dispersion coefficient ($\widetilde{D}$) to characterize fracture networks in terms of dimensionless horizontal and vertical time scales $\tau_m$ and $\tau_0$. The dispersion coefficient is shown to strongly depend on the horizontal time scale and converges towards a constant value of $0.08$ within reasonable fluid and geometrical parameter ranges, while the non-dimensional velocity exhibits a characteristic $\widetilde{v} \sim \tau_m^{-1/2}$ scaling. Given that hydraulic information is often only available at limited places within (fractured-porous) aquifer system, such as boreholes or springs, our study intends to provide a rudimentary analytical concept to potentially reconstruct internal fracture network geometries from external boundary information, e.g., the dispersive properties of discharge (groundwater level fluctuations).