Ground-Water Resources Program; National Research Program

U.S. Geological Survey
Professional Paper 1703, Appendix 1

Thermal Methods for Investigating Ground-Water Recharge

By Kyle W. Blasch, Jim Constantz, and David A. Stonestrom


Conceptual model of coupled transport of heat and water during focused recharge (as occurs beneath channels and along mountain fronts) and diffuse recharge (as occurs beneath interfluvial areas of basin floors). Fluxes of thermal energy are sustained by radiant heating from the sun and geothermal heating from the Earth‘s interior (from figure 1).


Recharge of aquifers within arid and semiarid environments is defined as the downward flux of water across the regional water table. The introduction of recharging water at the land surface can occur at discreet locations, such as in stream channels, or be distributed over the landscape, such as across broad interarroyo areas within an alluvial ground-water basin. The occurrence of recharge at discreet locations is referred to as focused recharge, whereas the occurrence of recharge over broad regions is referred to as diffuse recharge. The primary interest of this appendix is focused recharge, but regardless of the type of recharge, estimation of downward fluxes is essential to its quantification.

Like chemical tracers, heat can come from natural sources or be intentionally introduced to infer transport properties and aquifer recharge. The admission and redistribution of heat from natural processes such as insolation, infiltration, and geothermal activity can be used to quantify subsurface flow regimes. Heat is well suited as a ground-water tracer because it provides a naturally present dynamic signal and is relatively harmless over a useful range of induced perturbations. Thermal methods have proven valuable for recharge investigations for several reasons. First, theoretical descriptions of coupled water-and-heat transport are available for the hydrologic processes most often encountered in practice. These include land-surface mechanisms such as radiant heating from the sun, radiant cooling into space, and evapotranspiration, in addition to the advective and conductive mechanisms that usually dominate at depth. Second, temperature is theoretically well defined and readily measured. Third, thermal methods for depths ranging from the land surface to depths of hundreds of meters are based on similar physical principles. Fourth, numerical codes for simulating heat and water transport have become increasingly reliable and widely available.

Direct measurement of water flux in the subsurface is difficult, prompting investigators to pursue indirect methods. Geophysical approaches that exploit the coupled relation between heat and water transport provide an attractive class of methods that have become widely used in investigations of recharge. This appendix reviews the application of heat to the problem of recharge estimation. Its objective is to provide a fairly complete account of the theoretical underpinnings together with a comprehensive review of thermal methods in practice. Investigators began using subsurface temperatures to delineate recharge areas and infer directions of ground-water flow around the turn of the 20th century. During the 1960s, analytical and numerical solutions for simplified heat- and fluid-flow problems became available. These early solutions, though one-dimensional and otherwise restricted, provided a strong impetus for applying thermal methods to problems of liquid and vapor movement in systems ranging from soils to geothermal reservoirs. Today’s combination of fast processors, massive data-storage units, and efficient matrix techniques provide numerical solutions to complex, three-dimensional transport problems. These approaches allow researchers to take advantage of the considerable information content routinely achievable in high-accuracy temperature work.

download this report as a 23-page PDF file (pp1703_appendix1.pdf; 1.6 MB).

For questions about the content of this report, contact Kyle Blasch

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