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Hydrology and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Discussion papers
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Submitted as: research article 18 Sep 2019

Submitted as: research article | 18 Sep 2019

Review status
This discussion paper is a preprint. It is a manuscript under review for the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences (HESS).

On the assimilation of environmental tracer observations for model-based decision support

Matthew J. Knowling1, Jeremy T. White1, Catherine R. Moore1, Pawel Rakowski2, and Kevin Hayley3 Matthew J. Knowling et al.
  • 1GNS Science, New Zealand
  • 2Hawke's Bay Regional Council, New Zealand
  • 3Groundwater Solutions Ltd, Australia

Abstract. It has been advocated that history-matching numerical models to a diverse range of observation data types, particularly including environmental tracer concentrations and their interpretations/derivatives (e.g., mean age), constitutes an effective and appropriate means to improve model forecast reliability. This study presents two regional-scale modeling case studies that directly and rigorously assess the value of discrete tritium concentration observations and tritium-derived mean residence time (MRT) estimates in two decision-support contexts; value herein is measured as the improvement (or otherwise) in the reliability of forecasts through uncertainty variance reduction and bias minimization as a result of assimilating tritium or tritium-derived MRT observations. The first case study (Heretaunga Plains, New Zealand) utilizes a suite of steady-state and transient flow models and an advection-only particle-tracking model to evaluate the worth of tritium-derived MRT estimates relative to hydraulic potential, spring discharge and river/aquifer exchange flux observations. The worth of MRT observations is quantified in terms of the change in the uncertainty surrounding ecologically-sensitive spring discharge forecasts via first-order second-moment analyses. The second case study (Hauraki Plains, New Zealand) employs paired simple/complex transient flow and transport models to evaluate the potential for assimilation-induced bias in simulated surface-water nitrate discharge to an ecologically-sensitive estuary system; formal data assimilation of tritium observations is undertaken using an iterative ensemble smoother. The results of these case studies indicate that, for the decision-relevant forecasts considered, tritium observations are of variable benefit and may induce damaging bias in forecasts; these biases are a result of an imperfect model's inability to properly and directly assimilate the rich information content of the tritium observations. The findings of this study challenge the unqualified advocacy of the increasing use of tracers, and diverse data types more generally, whenever environmental model data assimilation is undertaken with imperfect models. This study also highlights the need for improved imperfect-model data assimilation strategies. While these strategies will likely require increased model complexity (including advanced discretization, processes and parameterization) to allow for appropriate assimilation of rich and diverse data types that operate across a range of spatial and temporal scales commensurate with a forecast of management interest, it is critical that increased model complexity does not preclude the application of formal data assimilation and uncertainty quantification techniques due to model instability and excessive run times.

Matthew J. Knowling et al.
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Matthew J. Knowling et al.
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