Control of coupling mass balance error in a process-based numerical model of surface-subsurface flow interaction

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© 2015. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.A process-based numerical model of integrated surface-subsurface flow is analyzed in order to identify, track, and reduce the mass balance errors affiliated with the model's coupling scheme. The sources of coupling error include a surface-subsurface grid interface that requires node-to-cell and cell-to-node interpolation of exchange fluxes and ponding heads, and a sequential iterative time matching procedure that includes a time lag in these same exchange terms. Based on numerical experiments carried out for two synthetic test cases and for a complex drainage basin in northern Italy, it is shown that the coupling mass balance error increases during the flood recession limb when the rate of change in the fluxes exchanged between the surface and subsurface is highest. A dimensionless index that quantifies the degree of coupling and a saturated area index are introduced to monitor the sensitivity of the model to coupling error. Error reduction is achieved through improvements to the heuristic procedure used to control and adapt the time step interval and to the interpolation algorithm used to pass exchange variables from nodes to cells. The analysis presented illustrates the trade-offs between a flexible description of surface and subsurface flow processes and the numerical errors inherent in sequential iterative coupling with staggered nodal points at the land surface interface, and it reveals mitigation strategies that are applicable to all integrated models sharing this coupling and discretization approach.






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Fiorentini, M, S Orlandini and C Paniconi (2015). Control of coupling mass balance error in a process-based numerical model of surface-subsurface flow interaction. Water Resources Research, 51(7). pp. 5698–5716. 10.1002/2014WR016816 Retrieved from

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