Variable-scale conceptual framework for shallow groundwater systems in the low-relief, water-limited Canadian Boreal Plains

Case studies illustrate a conceptual framework for shallow groundwater flow systems’ temporal and spatial variability with groundwater-surface water interactions in the Boreal Plains of Canada. The framework was developed using a twenty-year hydrometric dataset (e.g., climatological and streamflow data, hydraulic heads, vertical hydraulic head gradients, geochemical and isotopic signatures). The region is characterized by low-relief glacial landscapes, with a mosaic of forestlands and peatlands, and a subhumid climate, resulting in spatially heterogeneous storage and transmission properties, variable recharge and evapotranspiration potentials, and highly complex patterns of water movement. Two primary spatiotemporal scales were examined to create a holistic, variable-scale conceptual model of groundwater movement: the large scale (e.g., glacial landforms, regional topography, decadal climate cycles) and the small scale (e.g., individual landcover, local hummocks, annual moisture deficits). Water table behaviour, evapotranspiration rates, and runoff were controlled by a hierarchy of interactions between hydrological processes occurring at different spatiotemporal scales; however, the specific order of controls depends on the hydrogeological setting. The case studies, supported by empirical and numerical modelling, demonstrate that smaller-scale heterogeneities in geology and recharge can dominate over topographic controls, particularly in areas with high conductivity or hummocky terrain, where the climate, geology, and topographic relief are similar. Many hydrogeological studies rely on surface topography as a first‐order control; however, with field observations and modelling, this conceptual framework demonstrates the need to consider the potential dominance of subsurface characteristics and processes, plus climate, especially in landscapes with low recharge and low relief.

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