Mechanisms for fast flow in unsaturated fractured rock
- Author(s): Tokunaga, Tetsu K.
- Wan, Jiamin
- et al.
Although fractures in rock are well-recognized as pathways for fast percolation of water, the possibility that fast flow could occur along unsaturated fracture pathways is commonly not considered in vadose zone hydrology. In this study, two mechanisms for fast flow along unsaturated fractures were investigated, film flow and surface zone flow. The importance of fracture surface roughness was demonstrated through experiments conducted on ceramic blocks having simple surface topographies. Those experiments showed that film flow on fracture surfaces is largely due to flow along continuous surface channels which become water-filled at near-zero matric (capillary) potentials. The second mechanism, surface zone flow, is important when the permeability of the rock along fractures (fracture skin) is significantly greater than that of the bulk rock matrix. Surface zone fast flow was demonstrated through water imbibition (sorptivity) experiments. These mechanisms help explain observations of rapid solute transport in unsaturated subsurface environments.