• macropores;
  • preferential flow;
  • subsurface flow;
  • forest hydrology;
  • hillslope hydrology;
  • complex systems;
  • root channels;
  • conceptual models;
  • fracture flow


Preferential flow paths are known to be important conduits of subsurface stormflow in forest hillslopes. Earlier research on preferential flow paths focused on vertical transport; however, lateral transport is also evident in steep forested slopes underlain by bedrock or till. Macropores consisting of decayed and live roots, subsurface erosion, surface bedrock fractures, and animal burrows form the basis of a ‘backbone’ for lateral preferential flow in such sites. Evidence from field studies in Japan indicates that although individual macropore segments are generally <0·5 m in length, they have a tendency to self-organize into larger preferential flow systems as sites become wetter. Staining tests show clear evidence of interconnected macropore flow segments, including: flow within decayed root channels and subsurface erosion cavities; flow in small depressions of the bedrock substrate; fracture flow in weathered bedrock; exchange between macropores and mesopores; and flow at the organic horizon–mineral soil interface and in buried pockets of organic material and loose soil. Here we develop a three-dimensional model for preferential flow systems based on distributed attributes of macropores and potential connecting nodes (e.g. zones of loose soil and buried organic matter). We postulate that the spatially variable and non-linear preferential flow response observed at our Japan field site, as well as at other sites, is attributed to discrete segments of macropores connecting at various nodes within the regolith. Each node is activated by local soil water conditions and is influenced strongly by soil depth, permeability, pore size, organic matter distribution, surface and substrate topography, and possibly momentum dissipation. This study represents the first attempt to characterize the spatially distributed nature of preferential flow paths at the hillslope scale and presents strong evidence that these networks exhibit complex system behaviour. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.