Spatial variation and interaction of runoff generation and erosion within a semi-arid, complex terrain catchment: A hierarchical approach

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Purpose: Closed erosion plots have been used extensively to investigate soil loss and its spatial variation within a watershed. However, erosion rates measured on closed plots at various locations within a watershed may not reflect the "real world" conditions due to plot boundary problems. The purpose of this study was to identify runoff and sediment sources in a semi-arid, complex terrain catchment by using the data collected from open plots, nested catchments, and tunnel systems. Materials and methods: The study catchment, in the Loess Plateau of China, was partitioned into various-level geomorphic units. Runoff and sediment discharges were measured from 55 storm events between 1963 and 1968 on open plots and nested catchments. Storm flows were also monitored in 14 rainfall events from the tunnel systems between 1989 and 1990. This study combined the data collected from the two periods to investigate runoff and sediment sources from the different geomorphic units of the catchment. Results and discussion: On the four open plots (S1, S2, S3, and S4) of the hill slope, total runoff depths of 128.5 mm (S1), 84.3 mm (S2), 101.92 mm (S3), and 141.73 mm (S4) were recorded from all the events over the first period, which correspondingly produced total sediment yields of 3.056 kg m-2 (S1), 9.058 kg m-2 (S1), 42.848 kg m-2 (S3), and 97.256 kg m-2 (S4). The number of runoff events also varied due to a non-uniformity in runoff generation among the different geomorphic units of the catchment. Tunnel flows generally had higher mean sediment concentrations than catchment outflows. Three nested catchments located from the headwaters (C1) to the mouth of the catchment (C3) generated total runoff depths of 120.02 mm (C1), 143.92 mm (C2), and 149.43 mm (C3), and correspondingly produced sediments yields of 62.01 kg m-2 (C1), 144.02 kg m-2 (C2), and 123.92 kg m-2 (C3) for the first period. Conclusions: Significant variations in runoff and erosion existed within the catchment. The spatial variation of runoff generation on the hill slopes resulted from the variation of soil infiltration. Sediment produced from the lower hill slope zone was disproportionally higher than that from the upper hill slope zone. Nevertheless, a significant portion of the sediment eroded on the lower slope zone was caused by runoff generated from the upper slope zone. Tunnel erosion also played a significant role in sediment production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1770-1783
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Soils and Sediments
Issue number10
StatePublished - Dec 2013


  • Loess Plateau
  • Nested catchment
  • Open plots
  • Runoff and sediment sources
  • Spatial variation and interaction


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