Climate, soil, and vegetation controls on the temporal variability of vadose zone transport

C. J. Harman*, P. S.C. Rao, N. B. Basu, G. S. McGrath, P. Kumar, M. Sivapalan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

55 Citations (Scopus)


Temporal patterns of solute transport and transformation through the vadose zone are driven by the stochastic variability of water fluxes. This is determined by the hydrologic filtering of precipitation variability into infiltration, storage, drainage, and evapotranspiration. In this work we develop a framework for examining the role of the hydrologic filtering and, in particular, the effect of evapotranspiration in determining the travel time and delivery of sorbing, reacting solutes transported through the vadose zone by stochastic rainfall events. We describe a 1-D vertical model in which solute pulses are tracked as point loads transported to depth by a series of discrete infiltration events. Numerical solutions of this model compare well to the Richards equation-based HYDRUS model for some typical cases. We then utilize existing theory of the stochastic dynamics of soil water to derive analytical and semianalytical expressions for the probability density functions (pdf's) of solute travel time and delivery. The moments of these pdf's directly relate the mean and variance of expected travel times to the water balance and show how evapotranspiration tends to reduce (and make more uncertain) the mass of a degrading solute delivered to the base of the vadose zone. The framework suggests a classification of different modes hydrologic filtering depending on hydroclimatic and landscape controls. Results suggest that variability in travel times decreases with soil depth in wet climates but increases with soil depth in dry climates. In dry climates, rare large storms can be an important mechanism for leaching to groundwater.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberW00J13
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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