Long-term dewatering of groundwater is a necessary operation for mining safety in open-pit coal mines, as extensive dewatering might cause ecological problems due to dramatic changes in moisture movement in the soil, especially in ecologically fragile areas. In order to evaluate the impact of the coal mining operation on moisture movement in the vadose zone and vegetation, this paper presents a quantitative methodology and takes the Baorixile open-pit coal mine as a study example. A long-term in situ experiment (from 2004 to 2018), laboratory analysis, and numerical modelling were conducted to analyze the mechanisms and relationship among the dropping groundwater level, the vadose-zone moisture, and the ecological responses in the grassland area. The experiment data and modelling results suggest that groundwater level dropping during open-pit mining operation has limited influence on the vadose zone, exhibiting a variation of capillary water zone within a depth of 3 m while the vadose zone and soil water zone were at least 16 m deep. The critical evaporation depth of ground water is 8 m. The long-term influence radius of groundwater dewatering is about 2.72 km during the Baorixile mining operation, and the groundwater level change mainly influences the lower part of the intermediate vadose zone and the capillary water zone below 16 m, with little influence on the moisture contents in the soil water zone where the roots of shallow vegetation grow. The results from this study provide useful insight for sustainable development of coal mining in ecologically fragile areas.
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