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Modeling Across Multiple Scales to Enable System-Level Understanding of a Watershed
Published: July 10, 2017
Posted: April 18, 2018

Novel model structures allow advanced models of permafrost thermal hydrology to run at scale.

The Science
Field and laboratory observations and the models that are used to help understand the observed processes typically focus on relatively small scales, but the consequences of those processes must be evaluated at larger watershed or regional scales. An intermediate-scale modeling approach has been developed to bridge this gap in scales and improve confidence in simulations of Arctic hydrology and permafrost dynamics.

The Impact
Broadly applicable to hydrology modeling, the approach makes it possible to include more detail in process representations, thus providing direct links between detailed field investigations and larger-scale models. The resulting model improves the representation of permafrost dynamics, which directly affect cold-region hydrology, Arctic infrastructure stability, and biogeochemical cycles.

Motivated by results from fine-scale simulations, scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory developed an intermediate-scale model. The new model replaces a fully three-dimensional (3D) system with a 2D overland thermal hydrology system and a family of1D vertical columns, where each column represents a thermal hydrology system coupling the surface and subsurface but without lateral flow. This approach accurately approximates the fully resolved solution but can be solved at significantly less computational cost. The computational advantages will enable state-of-the-art models of permafrost dynamics to be applied across large swaths of the Arctic.  Furthermore, the approach supports the broader strategy of using local models and field observations to reduce uncertainty in watershed, regional, and global Earth System Model predictions.

BER Program Managers
David Lesmes, Paul Bayer, and Dan Stover
SC-23.1 (301-903-0289),, and

Principal Investigators
Ahmad Jan and Scott Painter
Climate Change Science Institute
Oak Ridge National Laboratory or

This work was supported by Interoperable Design of Extreme-scale Application Software (IDEAS) project, through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and by the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)–Arctic project, through the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

Jan, A., E. T. Coon, S. L. Painter, R. Garimella, and J. D Moulton, “An intermediate-scale model for thermal hydrology in low-relief permafrost-affected landscapes.” Computational Geosciences 22, 163–77 (2017). [DOI:10.1007/s10596-017-9679-3]

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Subsurface Biogeochemical Research
  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science

Division: SC-33.1 Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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