Identification of parameter importance for benzene transport in the unsaturated zone using global sensitivity analysis

Meirav Cohen*, Nimrod Schwartz, Ravid Rosenzweig

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One of the greatest threats to groundwater is contamination from fuel derivatives. Benzene, a highly mobile and toxic fuel derivative, can easily reach groundwater from fuel sources and lead to extensive groundwater contamination and drinking water disqualification. Modelling benzene transport in the unsaturated zone can quantify the risk for groundwater contamination and provide needed remediation strategies. Yet, characterization of the problem is often complicated, due to typical soil heterogeneity, numerous unknown site and solute parameters, and the difficulty of distinguishing important from non-important parameters. Thus, sensitivity analysis (SA) methods, such as global SA (GSA), are applied to reduce uncertainty and detect key parameters for groundwater contamination and remediation. Nevertheless, studies devoted to identifying the parameters that determine transport of fuel derivatives in the unsaturated zone are scarce. In this study, we performed GSA to assess benzene transport in the unsaturated zone. First, a simple GSA (Morris) screening method was used for a homogenous sandy vadose zone. Then, a more computationally demanding (Sobol) variance-based GSA was run on the most influential parameters. Finally, the Morris method was tested for a heterogeneous medium containing clay layers. To overcome model crashes during GSA, several methods were tested for imputation of missing data. The GSA results indicate that benzene degradation rate (λk) is the utmost influential parameter controlling benzene mobility, followed by aquifer depth (z). The adsorption coefficient (Kd) and the van Genuchten n parameter of the sandy soil (n1) were also highly influential. The study emphasizes the significance of λk and the presence of clay layers in predicting aquifer contamination. The study also indicates the importance of heterogenous media representation in the GSA. Though identical parameters control the transport in the different soil types, in the presence of both sand and clay, parameters directly affecting the solute concentration like λk and Kd have increased influence in clay, whereas n is more influential for sand comprising most of the profile. Overall, GSA is demonstrated here as an important tool for the analysis of transport models. The results also show that in higher dimensionality models, the radial basis function (RBF) is an efficient surrogate model for missing data imputation.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1585-1604
Number of pages20
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number7
StatePublished - 9 Apr 2024

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