Laboratory experiments were conducted to study solute transport along preferential flow paths in unsaturated, inclined fractures. Qualitative aspects of solute transport were identified in a miscible dye tracer experiment conducted in a transparent replica of a natural granite fracture. Additional experiments were conducted to measure the breakthrough curves of a conservative tracer introduced into an established preferential flow path in two different fracture replicas and a rock-replica combination. The influence of gravity was investigated by varying fracture inclination. The relationship between the travel times of the solute and the relative influence of gravity was substantially affected by two modes of intermittent flow that occurred: the snapping rivulet and the pulsating blob modes. The measured travel times of the solute were evaluated with three transfer function models: the axial dispersion, the reactors-in-series, and the lognormal models. The three models described the solute travel times nearly equally well. A mechanistic model was also formulated to describe transport when the pulsating blob mode occurred which assumed blobs of water containing solute mixed with residual pools of water along the flow path.
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Solute transport along preferential flow paths in unsaturated fractures