Three-dimensional visualization and quantification of soil macroporosity and water flow patterns using computed tomography


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Abstract. Efforts to assess the role of soil structure in soil and water processes have been limited by data based on two dimensional geometry or disturbed samples. Computed tomography (CT) is a non-invasive technique that allows for the three dimensional, non-destructive examination of heterogeneous materials. X-ray CT scanning was used to acquire serial images of contrasting soil types that could be used to render, and hence, quantify important soil constituents in three dimensions. By repeating the scanning techniques after an infiltration period, it was also possible to examine the nature of water movement in real time. Macropore architecture between different soil types was highly variable and generally appeared as unconnected pore segments at the resolution examined. As expected, water flow characteristics were similar to macropore structure, with wetting patterns resembling both Darcian and preferential flow identified in different soils. From this, it was found that in the sandy clay soil c. 90% of macropore space was active following infiltration, compared with c. 50% for the sandy loam soil. In addition, it was possible to visualize the three dimensional distribution of stones and other mineral material. The results illustrated the benefits of computed tomography over more conventional analyses of soil structure, and its potential as a tool for examining dynamic soil processes. However, problems associated with accessibility, resolution and artefacts still provide limitations of the technique.