Utilizing Environmental Tracers to Reduce Groundwater Flow and Transport Model Parameter Uncertainties

Nicholas E. Thiros, W. Payton Gardner, Kristopher L. Kuhlman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Non-uniqueness in groundwater model calibration is a primary source of uncertainty in groundwater flow and transport predictions. In this study, we investigate the ability of environmental tracer information to constrain groundwater model parameters. We utilize a pilot point calibration procedure conditioned to subsets of observed data including: liquid pressures, tritium (3H), chlorofluorocarbon-12 (CFC-12), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) concentrations; and groundwater apparent ages inferred from these environmental tracers, to quantify uncertainties in the heterogeneous permeability fields and infiltration rates of a steady-state 2-D synthetic aquifer and a transient 3-D model of a field site located near Riverton, Wyoming (USA). To identify the relative data worth of each observation data type, the post-calibration uncertainties of the optimal parameters for a given observation subset are compared to that from the full observation data set. Our results suggest that the calibration-constrained permeability field uncertainties are largest when liquid pressures are used as the sole calibration data set. We find significant reduction in permeability uncertainty and increased predictive accuracy when the environmental tracer concentrations, rather than apparent groundwater ages, are used as calibration targets in the synthetic model. Calibration of the Riverton field site model using environmental tracer concentrations directly produces infiltration rate estimates with the lowest uncertainties, however; permeability field uncertainties remain similar between the environmental tracer concentration and apparent groundwater age calibration scenarios. This work provides insight on the data worth of environmental tracer information to calibrate groundwater models and highlights potential benefits of directly assimilating environmental tracer concentrations into model parameter estimation procedures.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2020WR028235
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2021


  • Environmental tracers
  • groundwater age
  • groundwater hydrology
  • groundwater transport
  • model calibration
  • uncertainty quantification


Dive into the research topics of 'Utilizing Environmental Tracers to Reduce Groundwater Flow and Transport Model Parameter Uncertainties'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this