Hydrological studies have shown, for many years now, that catchments organize themselves. The signals that go into a basin (in our case rainfall) look different to those that come out of it (i.e.river discharge), due to hydrodynamics, flow path geometry, and topology effects (e.g. Rinaldo et al., 1991, 1995; D’Odorico and Rigon, 2003; Botter and Rinaldo, 2003). However, tracer campaigns (e.g.,isotope studies) and their interpretation have shown that the whole dynamic is more complex than first naively expected (e.g., Soulsby et al., 2009), and that “the total catchment storage is likely to be much greater than the dynamic storage inferred by hydrometric data alone, and needs to be invoked to explain some nonlinearity in rainfall-runoff responses in relation to antecedent conditions” (Birkel et al., 2011). For instance, in many catchment settings, dynamically expanding and contracting riparian saturation zones can play a major role in producing the real (proper) travel time of water (Fiori and Russo, 2008, Russo and Fiori, 2008, Tetzlaff et al., 2007). At the same time, the small-scale topographic variations in the bedrock and the filling and spilling of water into depressions and over the bedrock micro-topography (Tromp-van Meerveld and McDonnell, 2006; Hopp and McDonnell, 2009) can control the subsurface flow routing. Several researchers have also reported the role played by geological landscape features. The lack of confining layers in jointed and fractured bedrock and the local variations in its hydraulic conductivity may strongly influence water storage dynamics in the overlying soil layer (Pierson, 1977; Wilson and Dietrich, 1987; Montgomery et al., 2002).
The overall model of the spatial structure that leads to flow and storage organization (something that is crucial to prioritizing what to do and where to do it in river catchments) brings, therefore, to a system of reservoirs which, uphill, can be defined on the basis of bedrock geometry and permeability, and, close to the riparian zones, on the basis of various storage areas that interact dynamically with the stream network.
In this paper, we analyze the case where topography (i.e., lateral flow) is recognized as the predominant control for subsurface flow mechanisms. This is generally the case in mountain regions with moderate to steep topography (Tetzlaff et al., 2009a) where a shallow (highly conductive) soil layer lies on an impervious bedrock substrate (Western et al., 2004). Under these conditions, the availability of storage for water is limited almost exclusively to soil drainable porosity (e.g., Hilberts et al., 2005; Cordano and Rigon, 2008), complex riparian dynamics are less important, and can, as a first approximation, be neglected. Moreover, elevation potential dominates total hydraulic potential, and thus topography represents a good proxy (in theory) for water flow paths (e.g., Seibert et al., 2007; McNamara et al., 2005) and spatial patterns of soil moisture (e.g., Schmidt and Persson, 2003).
The fact that elevation potential dominates total hydraulic potential led to assume that local topography could represent a good way for describing hydrological processes at the hillslope/catchment scale.
Upon this belief, topographic indices have been developed and used as proxies to represent the role of topography on subsurface flow paths and soil-water storage dynamics. However, over the years these indices proved to be insufficient to explain an increasing number of case studies (e.g. Burt and Butcher, 1986; Western et al., 1999; Seibert et al., 1997) and brought to several reconsiderations of the matter, of which we briefly report.
The paper is available on Hydrological Processes Preview, and is the same paper presented in a previous post when submitted.
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