Microtopographical and hydrophysical controls on subsurface flow and solute transport: A continuous solute release experiment in a subarctic bog

TitleMicrotopographical and hydrophysical controls on subsurface flow and solute transport: A continuous solute release experiment in a subarctic bog
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsBalliston, N.E., C.P.R. McCarter, and J.S. Price
JournalHydrological Processes
Start Page2963
Keywordsbog, Hudson or James Bay Lowlands, hydrology, microtopography, preferential flow, Solute transport

Resource extraction and transportation activities in subarctic Canada can result in the unintentional release of contaminants into the surrounding peatlands. In the event of a release, a thorough understanding of solute transport within the saturated zone is necessary to predict plume fate and the potential impacts on peatland ecosystems. To better characterize contaminant transport in these systems, approximately 13,000 L/day of sodium chloride tracer (200 mg/L) was released into a bog in the James Bay Lowland. The tracer was pumped into a fully penetrating well (1.5 m) between July 5 and August 18, 2015. Horizontal and vertical plume development was measured via in situ specific conductance and water table depth from an adaptive monitoring network. Over the spill period, the bulk of the plume travelled a lateral distance of 100 m in the direction of the slight regional groundwater and topographical slope. The plume shape was irregular and followed the hollows, indicating preferential flow paths due to the site microtopography. Saturated transport of the tracer occurred primarily at ~25 cm below ground surface (bgs), and at a discontinuous high hydraulic conductivity layer ~125 cm bgs due to a complex and heterogeneous vertical hydraulic conductivity profile. Plume measurement was confounded by a large amount of precipitation (233 mm over the study period) that temporarily diluted the tracer in the highly conductive upper peat layer. Longitudinal solute advection can be approximated using local water table information (i.e., depth and gradient); microtopography; and meteorological conditions. Vertical distribution of solute within the peat profile is far more complex due to the heterogeneous subsurface; characterization would be aided by a detailed understanding of the site‐specific peat profile; the degree of decomposition; and the type of contaminant (e.g., reactive/nonreactive). The results of this research highlight the difficulty of tracking a contaminant spill in bogs and provide a benchmark for the characterization of the short‐term fate of a plume in these complex systems.