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Rapid-response unsaturated zone hydrology: Small-scale data, small-scale theory, big problems

March 26, 2021

The unsaturated zone (UZ) extends across the Earth’s terrestrial surface and is central to many problems related to land and water resource management. Flow of water through the UZ is typically thought to be slow and diffusive, such that it could attenuate fluxes and dampen variability between atmospheric inputs and underlying aquifer systems. This would reduce water resource vulnerability to contaminants and water-related hazards. Reducing or negating that effect, however, spatially concentrated and rapid flow and transport through the unsaturated zone is surprisingly common and becoming more so with the increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme hydroclimatic events. Arising from the wide range in the rates and complex modes of nonlinear flow processes, these effects are among the most poorly characterized hydrologic phenomena. Issues of scale present additional difficulties. Equations representing unsaturated processes have been developed and tested on the basis of field and laboratory measurements typically made at scales from pore size to plot size. In contrast, related problems of significant interest to society, including floods, aquifer recharge, landslides, and groundwater contamination, range from watershed to regional scales. The disparity between the scale of our understanding and the scale of interest for societal problems has spurred application of these model equations at increasingly coarse resolutions over larger areas than can be justified by existing measurements or theory. This mismatch in scales requires an assumption that spatially averaging slow diffusive flow and rapid preferential flow can effectively represent the influence of both processes across vast areas. Given the currently inadequate recognition and quantitative characterization of focused and rapid processes in unsaturated flow, these phenomena are critically in need of expanded attention and effort.

Publication Year 2021
Title Rapid-response unsaturated zone hydrology: Small-scale data, small-scale theory, big problems
DOI 10.3389/feart.2021.613564
Authors John R. Nimmo, Kimberlie Perkins, Michelle R. Plampin, Michelle A. Walvoord, Brian A. Ebel, Benjamin B. Mirus
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Frontiers in Earth Science
Index ID 70220458
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center; WMA - Earth System Processes Division; Geology, Energy & Minerals Science Center