Evaluating Vadose Zone Moisture Dynamics using Ground-Penetrating Radar
Steelman, Colby Michael
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Near-surface sediments in the vadose zone play a fundamental role in the hydrologic system. The shallow vadose zone can act as a buffer to delay or attenuate surface contaminants before they reach the water table. It also acts as a temporary soil moisture reservoir for plant and atmospheric uptake, and regulates the seasonal groundwater recharge process. Over the past few decades, geophysical methods have received unprecedented attention as an effective vadose zone characterization tool offering a range of non-invasive to minimally invasive techniques with the capacity to provide detailed soil moisture information at depths typically unattainable using conventional point-measurement sensors. Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has received much of this attention due to its high sensitivity to the liquid water phase in geologic media. While much has been learned about GPR soil moisture monitoring and characterization techniques, it has not been evaluated across highly dynamic natural soil conditions. Consequently, GPR’s capacity to characterize a complete range of naturally occurring vadose zone conditions including wetting/drying and freeze/thaw cycles, is not yet fully understood. Further, the nature of GPR response during highly dynamic moisture periods has not been thoroughly investigated. The objective of this thesis is to examine the capacity of various surface GPR techniques and methodologies for the characterization of soil moisture dynamics in the upper few meters of vadose zone, and to develop measurement strategies capable of providing quantitative information about the current and future state of the shallow hydrologic system. To achieve this, an exhaustive soil moisture monitoring campaign employing a range of GPR antenna frequencies and survey acquisition geometries was initiated at three different agricultural field sites located in southern Ontario, Canada, between May 2006 and October 2008. This thesis represents the first attempt to evaluate multiple annual cycles of soil conditions and associated hydrological processes using high-frequency GPR measurements. Summaries of the seven major works embodied in this thesis are provided below. Direct ground wave (DGW) measurements obtained with GPR have been used in a number of previous studies to monitor volumetric water content changes in the root zone; however, these studies have involved controlled field experiments or measurements collected across limited ranges in soil moisture. To further investigate the capacity of the DGW method, multi-frequency (i.e., 225 MHz, 450 MHz and 900 MHz) common-midpoint (CMP) measurements were used to monitor a complete annual cycle of soil water content variations at three sites with different soil textures (i.e., sand, sandy loam and silt loam). CMP surveys permitted characterization of the nature and evolution of the near-surface electromagnetic wavefields, and their subsequent impact on DGW velocity measurements. GPR results showed significant temporal variations in both the near-surface wavefield and multi-frequency DGW velocities corresponding to both seasonal and shorter term variations in soil conditions. While all of the measurement sites displayed similar temporal responses, the rate and magnitude of these velocity variations corresponded to varying soil water contents which were primarily controlled by the soil textural properties. Overall, the DGW measurements obtained using higher frequency antennas were less impacted by near-surface wavefield interference due to their shorter signal pulse duration. The estimation of soil water content using GPR velocity requires an appropriate petrophysical relationship between the dielectric permittivity and volumetric water content of the soil. The ability of various empirical relationships, volumetric mixing formulae and effective medium approximations were evaluated to predict near-surface volumetric soil water content using high-frequency DGW velocity measurements obtained from CMP soundings. Measurements were collected using 225, 450 and 900 MHz antennas across sand, sandy loam and silt loam soil textures over a complete annual cycle of soil conditions. A lack of frequency dependence in the results indicated that frequency dispersion had minimal impact on the data set. However, the accuracy of soil water content predictions obtained from the various relationships ranged considerably. The best fitting relationships did exhibit some degree of textural bias that should be considered in the choice of petrophysical relationship for a given data set. Further improvements in water content estimates were obtained using a field calibrated third-order polynomial relationship and three-phase volumetric mixing formula. While DGW measurements provide valuable information within the root zone, the characterization of vertical moisture distribution and dynamics requires a different approach. A common approach utilizes normal-moveout (NMO) velocity analysis of CMP sounding data. To further examine this approach, an extensive field study using multi-frequency (i.e., 225 MHz, 450 MHz, 900 MHz) CMP soundings was conducted to monitor a complete annual cycle of vertical soil moisture conditions at the sand, sandy loam and silt loam sites. The use of NMO velocity analysis was examined for monitoring highly dynamic vertical soil moisture conditions consisting of wetting/drying and freeze/thaw cycles with varying degrees of magnitude and vertical velocity gradient. NMO velocity analysis was used to construct interval-velocity-depth models at a fixed location collected every 1 to 4 weeks. Time-lapse models were combined to construct temporal interval-velocity fields, which were converted into soil moisture content. These moisture fields were used to characterize the vertical distribution, and dynamics of soil moisture in the upper few meters of vadose zone. Although the use of multiple antenna frequencies provided varying investigation depths and vertical resolving capabilities, optimal characterization of soil moisture conditions was obtained with 900 MHz antennas. The integration of DGW and NMO velocity data from a single CMP sounding could be used to assess the nature of shallow soil moisture coupling with underlying vadose zone conditions; however, a more quantitative analyses of the surface moisture dynamics would require definitive knowledge of GPR sampling depth. Although surface techniques have been used by a number of previous researchers to characterize soil moisture content in the vadose zone, limited temporal sampling and low resolution near the surface in these studies impeded the quantitative analysis of vertical soil moisture distribution and its associated dynamics within the shallow subsurface. To further examine the capacity of surface GPR, an extensive 26 month field study was undertaken using concurrent high-frequency (i.e., 900 MHz) reflection profiling and CMP soundings to quantitatively monitor soil moisture distribution and dynamics within a sandy vadose zone environment. An analysis on the concurrent use of reflection and CMP measurements was conducted over two contrasting annual cycles of soil conditions. Reflection profiles provided high resolution traveltime data between four stratigraphic reflection events while cumulative results of the CMP sounding data set produced precise depth estimates for those reflecting interfaces, which were used to convert interval traveltime data into soil water content estimates. The downward propagation of episodic infiltration events associated with seasonal and transient conditions were well resolved by the GPR data. The GPR data also revealed variations in the nature of these infiltration events between contrasting annual cycles. The use of CMP soundings also permitted the determination of DGW velocities, which enabled better characterization of short-duration wetting/drying and freezing/thawing processes. This higher resolution information can be used to examine the nature of the coupling between shallow and deep moisture conditions. High-resolution surface GPR measurements were used to examine vertical soil moisture distribution and its associated dynamics within the shallow subsurface over a 26 month period. While the apparent ability of surface GPR methods to give high quality estimates of soil moisture distribution in the upper 3 meters of the vadose zone was demonstrated, the nature of these GPR-derived moisture data needed to be assessed in the context of other hydrological information. As a result, GPR soil moisture estimates were compared with predictions obtained from a well-accepted hydrological modeling package, HYDRUS-1D (Simunek et al., 2008). The nature of transient infiltration pulses, evapotranspiration episodes, and deep drainage patterns were examined by comparing them with vertical soil moisture flow simulations. Using laboratory derived soil hydraulic property information from soil samples and a number of simplifying assumptions about the system, very good agreement was achieved between measured and simulated soil moisture conditions without model calibration. The overall good agreement observed between forward simulations and field measurements over the vertical profile validated the capacity of surface GPR to provide detailed information about hydraulic state conditions in the upper few meters of vadose zone. A unique DGW propagation phenomenon was observed during early soil frost formation. High-frequency DGW measurements were used to monitor the seasonal development of a thin, high velocity frozen soil layer over a wet low velocity unfrozen substratum. During the freezing process, the progressive attenuation of a low velocity DGW and the subsequent development of a high velocity DGW were observed. Numerical simulations using GPRMAX2D (Giannopoulos, 2005) showed that low velocity DGW occurring after freezing commenced was due to energy leaking across the frozen layer from the spherical body wave in the unfrozen half space. This leaky phase progressively dissipated until the frozen layer reached a thickness equivalent to one quarter of the dominant wavelength in the frozen ground. The appearance of the high velocity DGW was governed by its destructive interference with the reflection events from the base of the frozen layer. This interference obscured the high velocity DGW until the frozen layer thickness reached one half of the dominant wavelength in the frozen ground. While GPR has been extensively used to study frozen soil conditions in alpine environments, its capacity to characterize highly dynamic shallow freeze-thaw processes typically observed in temperate environments is not well understood. High-frequency reflection profiles and CMP soundings were used to monitor the freezing and thawing process during the winter seasonal period at the sand and silt loam sites. Reflection profiles revealed the long-term development of a very shallow (<0.5 m) soil frost zone overlying unfrozen wet substratum. During the course of the winter season, long-term traveltime analysis yielded physical properties of the frozen and unfrozen layers as well as the spatial distribution of the base of the soil frost zone. Short-term shallow thawing events overlying frozen substratum formed a dispersive waveguide for both the CMP and reflection profile surveys. Inversion of the dispersive wavefields for the CMP data yielded physical property estimates for the thawed and frozen soils and thawed layer thickness. It was shown that GPR can be used to monitor very shallow freezing and thawing events by responding to changes in the relative dielectric permittivity of the soil water phase. The works embodied in this thesis demonstrate the effectiveness of high-frequency GPR as a non-invasive soil moisture monitoring tool under a full range of naturally occurring moisture conditions with the temporal and vertical resolution necessary to quantitatively examine shallow vadose zone moisture dynamics. Because this study encompassed an unprecedented range of naturally occurring soil conditions, including numerous short and long duration wetting/drying and freezing/thawing cycles, complex geophysical responses were observed during highly dynamic soil moisture processes. Analysis and interpretation of these geophysical responses yielded both qualitative and quantitative information about the state of the hydrologic system, and hence, provided a non-invasive means of characterizing soil moisture processes in shallow vadose zone environments. In the future, these GPR soil moisture monitoring strategies should be incorporated into advanced land-surface hydrological modeling studies to improve our understanding of shallow hydrologic systems and its impacts on groundwater resources.