How do disconnected macropores in sloping soils facilitate preferential flow?

John L. Nieber, Roy C. Sidle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Scopus citations


Runoff from hillslopes is generated by processes such as infiltration-excess and saturation overland flow, subsurface stormflow and subsurface return flow. Preferential flow through macropores can affect any one of these runoff generation processes. Field studies at the Hitachi Ohta Experimental Watershed in Japan have noted that self-organization processes may manifest the connectivity of such subsurface flow paths, particularly via macropores, from hillslopes to stream channels. It is well established from soil physics principles that the connectivity of macropore networks depends on soil wetness and this has been shown experimentally at Hitachi Ohta where subsurface flow and streamflow respond to thresholds of wetness. Numerical solutions to the three-dimensional Richards equation are derived for a sloping soil block containing a population of disconnected macropores of various sizes, shapes and orientations. Solutions for the case of steady water flux applied to the surface of the soil block are evaluated to determine the conditions where the disconnected macropores become active in the flow process. Results show that subsurface flow is directed through the preferential flow network in the saturated portion of the soil but bypasses the macropores in the drier regions. The preferential flow network expands as the degree of saturation increases. The expanding network of active macropores leads to less resistance to overall flow in the domain and access to increased volumes of the flow domain. Although the individual macropores are disconnected, it is argued that large localized hydraulic gradients can potentially lead to preferred zones of subsurface erosion. In addition to the importance of these findings related to stormflow generation in catchments, they add support to the concept of self-organization of subsurface flow systems in soils.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1582-1594
Number of pages13
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 2010


  • Hillslope hydrology
  • Preferential flow
  • Richards equation
  • Self-organization
  • Subsurface erosion
  • Subsurface flow modelling
  • Subsurface flow paths


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