Water Resources Research

Direction of unsaturated flow in a homogeneous and isotropic hillslope

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Abstract

[1] The distribution of soil moisture in a homogeneous and isotropic hillslope is a transient, variably saturated physical process controlled by rainfall characteristics, hillslope geometry, and the hydrological properties of the hillslope materials. The major driving mechanisms for moisture movement are gravity and gradients in matric potential. The latter is solely controlled by gradients of moisture content. In a homogeneous and isotropic saturated hillslope, absent a gradient in moisture content and under the driving force of gravity with a constant pressure boundary at the slope surface, flow is always in the lateral downslope direction, under either transient or steady state conditions. However, under variably saturated conditions, both gravity and moisture content gradients drive fluid motion, leading to complex flow patterns. In general, the flow field near the ground surface is variably saturated and transient, and the direction of flow could be laterally downslope, laterally upslope, or vertically downward. Previous work has suggested that prevailing rainfall conditions are sufficient to completely control these flow regimes. This work, however, shows that under time-varying rainfall conditions, vertical, downslope, and upslope lateral flow can concurrently occur at different depths and locations within the hillslope. More importantly, we show that the state of wetting or drying in a hillslope defines the temporal and spatial regimes of flow and when and where laterally downslope and/or laterally upslope flow occurs.

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