Validation of hydraulic tomography in an unconfined aquifer: A controlled sandbox study

Zhanfeng Zhao, Walter A. Illman, Tian Chyi J. Yeh, Steven J. Berg, Deqiang Mao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


In this study, we demonstrate the effectiveness of hydraulic tomography (HT) that considers variably saturated flow processes in mapping the heterogeneity of both the saturated and unsaturated zones in a laboratory unconfined aquifer. The successive linear estimator (SLE) developed by Mao et al. (2013c) for interpreting HT in unconfined aquifers is utilized to obtain tomograms of hydraulic conductivity (K), specific storage (Ss), and the unsaturated zone parameters (pore size parameter (α) and saturated water content (θs)) for the Gardner-Russo's model. The estimated tomograms are first evaluated by visually comparing them with stratigraphy visible in the sandbox. Results reveal that the HT analysis is able to accurately capture the location and extent of heterogeneity including high and low K layers within the saturated and unsaturated zones, as well as reasonable distribution patterns of α and θs for the Gardner-Russo's model. We then validate the estimated tomograms through predictions of drawdown responses of pumping tests not used during the inverse modeling effort. The strong agreement between simulated and observed drawdown curves obtained by pressure transducers and tensiometers demonstrates the robust performance of HT that considers variably saturated flow processes in unconfined aquifers and the unsaturated zone above it. In addition, compared to the case using the homogeneous assumption, HT results, as expected, yield significantly better predictions of drawdowns in both the saturated and unsaturated zones. This comparison further substantiates the unbiased and minimal variance of HT analysis with the SLE algorithm. Key Points: Hydraulic tomography can characterize the unconfined aquifer quite well Estimated tomograms accurately predict the drawdown responses Considering unconfined aquifer heterogeneity yields improved prediction

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4137-4155
Number of pages19
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015


  • heterogeneity
  • hydraulic tomography
  • unconfined aquifer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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