Hillslope-scale experiment demonstrates role of convergence during two-step saturation

Hydrology and Earth System Sciences
By: , and 



Subsurface flow and storage dynamics at hillslope scale are difficult to ascertain, often in part due to a lack of sufficient high-resolution measurements and an incomplete understanding of boundary conditions, soil properties, and other environmental aspects. A continuous and extreme rainfall experiment on an artificial hillslope at Biosphere 2's Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO) resulted in saturation excess overland flow and gully erosion in the convergent hillslope area. An array of 496 soil moisture sensors revealed a two-step saturation process. First, the downward movement of the wetting front brought soils to a relatively constant but still unsaturated moisture content. Second, soils were brought to saturated conditions from below in response to rising water tables. Convergent areas responded faster than upslope areas, due to contributions from lateral subsurface flow driven by the topography of the bottom boundary, which is comparable to impermeable bedrock in natural environments. This led to the formation of a groundwater ridge in the convergent area, triggering saturation excess runoff generation. This unique experiment demonstrates, at very high spatial and temporal resolution, the role of convergence on subsurface storage and flow dynamics. The results bring into question the representation of saturation excess overland flow in conceptual rainfall-runoff models and land-surface models, since flow is gravity-driven in many of these models and upper layers cannot become saturated from below. The results also provide a baseline to study the role of the co-evolution of ecological and hydrological processes in determining landscape water dynamics during future experiments in LEO.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Hillslope-scale experiment demonstrates role of convergence during two-step saturation
Series title Hydrology and Earth System Sciences
DOI 10.5194/hess-18-3681-2014
Volume 18
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher European Geosciences Union
Contributing office(s) Earthquake Science Center
Description 12 p.
First page 3681
Last page 1692
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details