Infiltration processes in forested karst aquifers under changing environment - ForKarst


Aquifers with karst porosity are unique hydrogeological systems due to concentrated recharge of water and its rapid infiltration, high permeability and fast transport through karst conduits over large distances. Owing to this peculiar characteristics of groundwater flow, the behaviour of karst aquifers is especially dependent on respective hydrological conditions and therefore vulnerable to the effects of various environmental changes. Alterations in precipitation and evapotranspiration regimes can cause direct impact through modified amounts and patterns, as well as occurrence of more frequent and severe hydrological extremes. Long-term effects with a diminution of water stocks and short-term effects with the increasingly frequent occurrence of extreme events (e.g., floods, droughts) have already been observed in karst areas of the Mediterrenean, China, Texas and elsewhere.

The effects of extreme events such as ice break, heat waves, droughts and storms may cause forest disturbance and, thus, modification of the vegetation cover, which play an important role in water infiltrating into karst systems. Major parts of the pre-alpine regions in Europ are highly karstified and densely forested. Large-scale disturbances in forests thus indirectly endanger stability of their water balance and springs water quality by decreased evapotranspiration and filtration.

Despite the important role of karst water resources for freshwater supply, and for supporting the rich and unique biodiversity of the underground water ecosystem, few studies exist that adequately evaluate the impact of predicted global changes on their quantity and quality. In particular, the interconnected studies of the role and importance of soil and vegetation mantle in infiltration mechanisms including the hydrologic relationships to the whole aquifer recharge are lacking. Two research institutes, the Karst Research Institute and the Slovene Forestry Institute, both cutting-edge academic institutions in their fields, will address these issues in the present research proposal.

The purpose of the project is to examine the impact of environmental changes (climate change, large-scale disturbances in forests) on karst aquifers and to develop an innovative early-warning system for water quantity and quality and expert recommendations for adapted management of karst water sources that will include guidelines for forest management in water protection zones.

In selected narrower areas, quantification of the role of the soil and vegetation cover in infiltration processes and evaluation of selected contaminants transport will be done throughout the profile comprising atmosphere – vegetation – soil – unsaturated – saturated aquifer zones. The processes will be modelled by coupling vegetation and hydrological models and by upscaling from local to entire catchment scale by means of remote sensing data. Various scenarios of vegetation changes will consequently be envisaged and impacts to aquifer recharge mechanisms predicted. The results will represent a new contribution in the field of karst hydrology and a globally unique approach to a topic of great actuality.

Project steps

WP 1: Project management, coordination and logistics

A 1.1: Project management and reporting

A 1.2: Coordination and logistics

WP 2: Project basic database

A 2.1: Selection of representative test sites

A 2.2: (Pre)processing of available data

WP 3: New data acquisition

A 3.1: Set-up and maintenance of continuous measurement at the selected monitoring sites

A 3.2: Event-based data

A 3.3: Irrigation and tracer test experiments

WP 4: Conceptual model

A 4.1: Data (re)processing and analysis

A 4.2: Conceptual model development

WP 5: Numerical modelling

A 5.1: Site-specific model set-up

A 5.2: Upscaling to entire catchment

WP 6: Early-warning system and management strategies

A 6.1: Simulation of different scenarios

A 6.2: Developing an early-warning system and management strategies

WP 7: Awareness and knowledge transfer

A 7.1: Presentation of key highlights and results to the scientific and professional public

A 7.2: Presentation activities for target groups of the general public















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Project type
research project

karst hydrogeology; environmental changes; large-scale forest disturbances; aquifer recharge; contaminants transport; early-warning system