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Hillslope scale soil moisture variability in a steep alpine terrain

Penna, Daniele, Borga, Marco, Norbiato, Daniele, Dalla Fontana, Giancarlo
Journal of hydrology 2009 v.364 no.3-4 pp. 311-327
topography, soil water content, mountains, dew, topsoil, soil water, spatial variation, hills, mountain soils, Italy
In this study we analyse space-time variability of soil moisture data collected at 0-6, 0-12 and 0-20cm depth over three hillslopes with contrasting steep relief and shallow soil depth in the Dolomites (central-eastern Italian Alps). The data have been collected during two summer seasons (2005 and 2006) with different precipitation distribution. Analysis of soil moisture data shows that different physical processes control the space-time distribution of soil moisture at the three soil depths, with a marked effect of dew on the 0-6cm soil depth layer. The range of skewness values decreases markedly from the surface to deeper layers. More symmetric distributions, characterised by relatively low skewness, are found for mid-range soil moisture contents, while highly skewed distributions (generally with more log-normal shape) are found at dry and wet conditions. Scatter plots drawn for the whole data set and the analysis of the correlation coefficients suggest a good persistence of soil moisture with depth: the highest degree of correlation was observed between data collected at 0-12 and 0-20cm. Examination of correlation between soil moisture fields and topographical attributes shows that, notwithstanding the steep relief and the humid conditions, terrain indices are relatively poor predictors of soil moisture spatial variability. The slope and the topographic wetness index, which are found here the best univariate spatial predictors of soil moisture, explains up to 42% of the time-averaged moisture spatial variation. A negative relationship between the soil moisture spatial mean and the corresponding spatial standard deviation is found for mean water contents exceeding 25-30%, while a transition to a positive relationship is observed with drier conditions. Overall, soil moisture variability shows the highest values at moderate moisture conditions (23-29%) and reduced values for wetter and drier conditions for all depths. A negative linear relationship between mean soil moisture content and the coefficient of variation was observed. A soil moisture dynamics model proved to successfully capture the soil moisture variability at the hillslope scale. The simulated time series of hillslope-averaged soil moisture are in good agreement with the observed ones. Moreover, the model reproduces consistently the observed relationships between soil moisture spatial mean and corresponding variability.