Intercomparing hillslope hydrological dynamics: Spatio-temporal variability and vegetation cover effects

S. Bachmair, M. Weiler, P. A. Troch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Generalizable process knowledge on hillslope hydrological dynamics is still very poor, yet indispensable for numerous theoretical and practical applications. To gain insight into the organization of hillslope hydrological dynamics we intercompared 90 observations of shallow water table dynamics at three neighboring large-scale (33 × 75 m) hillslopes with similar slope, aspect, curvature, geologic, and pedologic properties but differences in vegetation cover (grassland, coniferous forest, and mixed forest) over a time period of 9 months. High-resolution measurements of water table fluctuations, rainfall, and discharge in the creek at the foot of all hillslopes allowed a good system characterization. The aim of this study was to explore the spatio-temporal variability of water table fluctuations within and between hillslopes, the effect of event and antecedent characteristics on the observed dynamics, and how the hillslope subsurface flow (SSF) response is reflected in the runoff response. To intercompare the SSF behavior we conducted an event-based analysis of the percentage of well activation, several metrics characterizing the shape and timing of the water table response curves, rainfall characteristics, antecedent wetness conditions, and several runoff response metrics. The analysis reveals that there are distinct differences in SSF response between the grassland hillslope and the forested hillslopes, with a lower frequency of well activation and absolute water table rise at the grassland hillslope. Second, spatial patterns of water table dynamics differ between wet fall/winter/spring (predominantly saturation of the lower part of the hillslope, weaker water table response, and slower response times) and dry summer conditions (whole-hillslope activation but higher spatial variability, generally stronger water table dynamics, and quicker response times). The observed seasonally changing water table dynamics suggest the development of a preferential flow network during high-intensity rainstorms under dry summer conditions. Third, catchment runoff is strongly driven by hillslope dynamics, yet contrasting hydrographs during events with similar hillslope dynamics indicate the influence of additional processes. Overall, the observed high spatio-temporal variability of seemingly homogeneous hillslopes calls for rethinking of current monitoring strategies and developing and testing new conceptual models of hillslope hydrologic processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberW05537
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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