Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research INSTAAR

Boulder City, CO, United States

Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research INSTAAR

Boulder City, CO, United States
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Langston A.L.,University of Colorado at Boulder | Tucker G.E.,University of Colorado at Boulder | Anderson R.S.,University of Colorado at Boulder | Anderson S.P.,Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research INSTAAR
Earth Surface Processes and Landforms | Year: 2015

Through the delivery of water in snowmelt, climate should govern the rate and extent of saprolite formation in snow-dominated mountain watersheds, yet the mechanisms by which water flows deeply into regolith are largely unexplored. In this study we link rainfall, snow depth, and water content data from both soil and shallow saprolite to document vadose zone dynamics in two montane catchments over 2 years. Measurements of snow pack thickness and soil moisture reveal strong contrasts between north- and south-facing slopes in both the timing of meltwater delivery and the duration of significant soil wetting in the shallow vadose zone. Despite similar magnitudes of snowmelt recharge, north-facing slopes have higher sustained soil moisture compared to south-facing slopes. To help interpret these observations, we use a 2D numerical model of vadose zone dynamics to calculate the expected space-time moisture patterns on an idealized hillslope under two wetting scenarios: a single sustained recharge pulse versus a set of short pulses. The model predicts that the duration of the recharge event exerts a stronger control on the depth and residence time of water in the upper unsaturated zone than the magnitude of the recharge event. Model calculations also imply that water should move more slowly through the subsurface and downward water flux should be substantially reduced when water is applied in several pulses rather than in one sustained event. The results suggest that thicker soil and more deeply weathered rock on north-facing slopes may reflect greater water supply to the deep subsurface. © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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