Subsurface lateral preferential flow network revealed by time-lapse ground-penetrating radar in a hillslope

Li Guo, Jin Chen, Henry Lin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


Subsurface lateral preferential flow (LPF) has been observed to contribute substantially to hillslope and catchment runoff. However, the complex nature of LPF and the lack of an appropriate investigation method have hindered direct LPF observation in the field. Thus, the initiation, persistence, and dynamics of LPF networks remain poorly understood. This study explored the application of time-lapse ground-penetrating radar (GPR) together with an artificial infiltration to shed light on the nature of LPF and its dynamics in a hillslope. Based on our enhanced field experimental setup and carefully refined GPR data postprocessing algorithms, we developed a new protocol to reconstruct LPF networks with centimeter resolution. This is the first time that a detailed LPF network and its dynamics have been revealed noninvasively along a hillslope. Real-time soil water monitoring and field soil investigation confirmed the locations of LPF mapped by time-lapse GPR surveys. Our results indicated the following: (1) Increased spatial variations of radar signals after infiltration suggested heterogeneous soil water changes within the studied soil, which reflected the generation and dynamics of LPF; (2) Two types of LPF networks were identified, the network at the location of soil permeability contrasts and that formed via a series of connected preferential flow paths; and (3) The formation and distribution of LPF networks were influenced by antecedent soil water condition. Overall, this study demonstrates clearly that carefully designed time-lapse GPR surveys with enhanced data postprocessing offer a practical and nondestructive way of mapping LPF networks in the field, thereby providing a potentially significant enhancement in our ability to study complex subsurface flow processes across the landscape.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9127-9147
Number of pages21
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 23 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


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