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Effects of climate and land-use change on thermal springs recharge—A system-based coupled surface-water and groundwater-flow model for Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

June 14, 2021

A three-dimensional hydrogeologic framework of the Hot Springs anticlinorium beneath Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, was constructed to represent the complex hydrogeology of the park and surrounding areas to depths exceeding 9,000 feet below ground surface. The framework, composed of 6 rock formations and 1 vertical fault emplaced beneath the thermal springs, was discretized into 19 layers, 429 rows, and 576 columns and incorporated into a 3-dimensional steady-state groundwater-flow model constructed in MODFLOW-2005. Historical daily mean thermal spring flows were simulated for one stress period of approximately 34 years (1980–2014), chosen to represent the period of record for historical climate data used in the quantification of the boundary conditions. The groundwater-flow model was manually calibrated to historical daily mean thermal spring flows of 88,000 cubic feet per day observed over a 12-year period of record (1990–1995 and 1998–2005) at the thermal springs collection system. Calibration was achieved by calculating starting heads and general head boundary conditions from the Bernoulli equation and then adjusting the horizontal and vertical hydraulic conductivities of the rock formations and vertical fault and the hydraulic conductance of head-dependent flux boundaries. The groundwater-flow model was coupled to a surface-water model developed in the Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System (PRMS) by using PRMS-simulated gravity drainage as a specified flux recharge boundary condition in the groundwater-flow model. Together, the coupled models were used to (1) locate the areas of groundwater recharge to the thermal springs in the discretized hydrogeologic framework by using forward and reverse particle-tracking capabilities of MODPATH, (2) simulate the effects of variable recharge rates on the spring flows at the thermal springs, and (3) assess possible effects of climate and land-use change on the long-term variability of spring flows at the thermal springs.

Forward and backward particle-tracking maps indicated that the most prevalent areas of recharge in the discretized hydrogeologic framework used in this study were within about 0.6–0.9 mile of the thermal springs. Forward particle tracking indicated a recharge area southwest of the thermal springs that corresponded to a location where the predominant lithologies are the Arkansas Novaculite, Hot Springs Sandstone, and Bigfork Chert. Backward particle tracking indicated a second localized area of recharge to the northeast of the thermal springs that corresponded to a location where the dominant lithology is the Bigfork Chert. The groundwater-flow model indicated that the most probable recharge formations are the Arkansas Novaculite, Bigfork Chert, and Hot Springs Sandstone.

The simulated effects of climate and land-use changes on the variability of the spring-flow rates at the thermal springs generally resulted in reductions of thermal spring flow attributed to urban development and more extreme climates characterized by elevated mean surface air temperatures. The groundwater-flow model predicted a linear relation between the thermal spring discharge and the cumulative recharge volume applied to the hydrogeologic framework, and the positive slope of the predicted relation between recharge and simulated thermal spring flow indicates that more extreme precipitation events that supply more recharge may in fact increase the thermal spring-flow rates.

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