HGS RESEARCH HIGHLIGHT - Understanding the water balance paradox in the Athabasca River Basin, Canada

AUTHORS: HYOUN-TAE HWANG, YOUNG-JIN PARK, EDWARD A. SUDICKY, STEVEN J. BERG, ROBERT MCLAUGHLIN, JON P. JONES 

This study demonstrates the importance of the including and appropriately parameterizing peatlands and forestlands for basin-scale integrated surface–subsurface models in the northern boreal forest, with particular emphasis on the Athabasca River Basin (ARB). With a long-term water balance approach to the ARB, we investigate reasons why downstream mean annual stream flow rates are consistently higher than upstream, despite the subhumid water deficit conditions in the downstream regimes. A high-resolution 3D variably saturated subsurface and surface water flow and evapotranspiration model of the ARB is constructed based on the bedrock and surficial geology and the spatial distribution of peatlands and their corresponding eco-regions. Historical climate data were used to drive the model for calibration against 40-year long-term average surface flow and groundwater observations during the historic instrumental period. The simulation results demonstrate that at the basin-scale, peatlands and forestlands can have a strong influence on the surface–subsurface hydrologic systems. In particular, peatlands in the midstream and downstream regimes of the ARB increase the water availability to the surface–subsurface water systems by reducing water loss through evapotranspiration. Based on the comparison of forestland evapotranspiration between observation and simulation, the overall spatial average evapotranspiration in downstream forestlands is larger than that in peatlands and thus the water contribution to the stream flow in downstream areas is relatively minor. Therefore, appropriate representation of peatlands and forestlands within the basin-scale hydrologic model is critical to reproduce the water balance of the ARB.

 3-D subsurface model for the Athabasca River Basin.

3-D subsurface model for the Athabasca River Basin.

 a) Spatial distribution of aridity index (AI) and b) Spatial distribution of actual aridity index (AAI) based on long-term steady state simulation results: JA=Jasper; HT=Hinton; WF=Windfall; AT=Athabasca; FM=Fort McMurray; and EA=Embarras Airport sub-basin.

a) Spatial distribution of aridity index (AI) and b) Spatial distribution of actual aridity index (AAI) based on long-term steady state simulation results: JA=Jasper; HT=Hinton; WF=Windfall; AT=Athabasca; FM=Fort McMurray; and EA=Embarras Airport sub-basin.