Groundwater from unconfined chalk aquifers constitutes a major water resource in the UK. The unsaturated zone in such systems plays a crucial role in the hydrological cycle, determining the timing and magnitude of recharge, and the transport and fate of nutrients. However, despite more than three decades of study, our physical understanding of this system is incomplete. In this research, state of the art instrumentation provided high temporal resolution readings of soil moisture status, rainfall and actual evaporation from two sites in the Pang and Lambourn catchments (Berkshire, UK), for a continuous two year period (2004/5). A parsimonious, physically based model for the flow of water through the chalk unsaturated zone, including a novel representation of the soil and weathered chalk layers, was developed. The parameters were identified by inverse modelling using field measurements of water content and matric potential. The model was driven by rainfall and evaporation data, and simulated fluxes throughout the profile (including the discrete matrix and fracture components), down to the water table (but not the water table response). Results showed that the model was able to reproduce closely the observed changes in soil moisture status. Recharge was predominantly through the matrix, and the recharge response was strongly attenuated with depth. However, the activation of fast recharge pathways through fractures in the chalk unsaturated zone was highly sensitive to rainfall intensity. Relatively modest increases in rainfall led to dramatically different recharge patterns, with potentially important implications for groundwater flooding. The development and migration of zero flux planes with time and depth were simulated. The simulations also provided strong evidence that, for water table depths greater than 5 m, recharge fluxes persist throughout the entire year, even during drought conditions, with important implications for the calculation of specific yield from baseflow estimates and the representation of recharge in groundwater models
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