We present an approach for process conceptualization in hillslope hydrology. We develop and implement a series of virtual experiments, whereby the interaction between water flow pathways, source and mixing at the hillslope scale is examined within a virtual experiment framework. We define these virtual experiments as ‘numerical experiments with a model driven by collective field intelligence’. The virtual experiments explore the first-order controls in hillslope hydrology, where the experimentalist and modeler work together to cooperatively develop and analyze the results. Our hillslope model for the virtual experiments (HillVi) in this paper is based on conceptualizing the water balance within the saturated and unsaturated zone in relation to soil physical properties in a spatially explicit manner at the hillslope scale. We argue that a virtual experiment model needs to be able to capture all major controls on subsurface flow processes that the experimentalist might deem important, while at the same time being simple with few ‘tunable parameters’. This combination makes the approach, and the dialog between experimentalist and modeler, a useful hypothesis testing tool. HillVi simulates mass flux for different initial conditions under the same flow conditions. We analyze our results in terms of an artificial line source and isotopic hydrograph separation of water and subsurface flow. Our results for this first set of virtual experiments showed how drainable porosity and soil depth variability exert a first order control on flow and transport at the hillslope scale. We found that high drainable porosity soils resulted in a restricted water table rise, resulting in more pronounced channeling of lateral subsurface flow along the soil–bedrock interface. This in turn resulted in a more anastomosing network of tracer movement across the slope. The virtual isotope hydrograph separation showed higher proportions of event water with increasing drainable porosity. When combined with previous experimental findings and conceptualizations, virtual experiments can be an effective way to isolate certain controls and examine their influence over a range of rainfall and antecedent wetness conditions.
Journal of Hydrology – Elsevier
Published: Jan 15, 2004
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