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Putting the cat in the box: why our models should consider subsurface heterogeneity at all scales

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Subsurface heterogeneity is found across the whole hydrological cycle. It causes preferential flow in the soil, the vadose zone, and the bedrock. Aside of this, it has many other consequences for water flow and storage. This opinion paper discusses the implications of subsurface heterogeneity across the hydrological cycle and its implications for hydrological modeling. It focuses on the representation (and misrepresentation) of subsurface heterogeneity within hydrological models at different scales. Possible limitations to the prediction performance of hydrological models that disregard subsurface heterogeneity are introduced and discussed. The paper ends with practical recommendations to include subsurface heterogeneity into hydrological models, to parameterize them realistically, and to present possible directions for future research. WIREs Water 2016, 3:478–486. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1146 This article is categorized under: Science of Water > Hydrological Processes
Subsurface heterogeneity in the field: (a) subsurface stormflow through a mousehole at a cambisol hillslope in the South of Freiburg, Germany (photo by Matthias Ritter) and (b) irregularity of rock properties: dolostone (bright colors) on top of shist (dark colors) at an exposure of the Champlain Thrust, Burlington, VT, USA (photo by Andreas Hartmann).
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Inflow to a simulated part of the hydrological cycle (recharge to a Mediterranean karst aquifer) under (a) average conditions and (c) more dynamic conditions (equal flow volumes for both); simulated discharge for (b) average conditions (compared to real observations) and (d) more dynamic conditions for a dual permeability model structure and an average permeability model structure calibrated under average conditions; the gray shaded area depicts the preferential part of the flow simulated by the dual permeability model.
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