Infiltration on mountain slopes: a comparison of three environments

Harden,Carol P.; Scruggs, P. Delmas 2003. Infiltration on mountain slopes: a comparison of three environments.. Geomorphology 55 ;5 -24.

Water is well established as a major driver of the geomorphic change that eventually reduces mountains to lower relief landscapes. Nonetheless, within the altitudinal limits of continuous vegetation in humid climates, water is also an essential factor in slope stability. In this paper, we present results from field experiments to determine infiltration rates at forested sites in the Andes Mountains (Ecuador), the southern Appalachian Mountains (USA), and the Luquillo Mountains (Puerto Rico). Using a portable rainfall simulator–infiltrometer (all three areas), and a single ring infiltrometer (Andes), we determined infiltration rates, even on steep slopes. Based on these results, we examine the spatial variability of infiltration, the relationship of rainfall runoff and infiltration to landscape position, the influence of vegetation on infiltration rates on slopes, and the implications of this research for better understanding erosional processes and landscape change. Infiltration rates ranged from 6 to 206 mm/h on lower slopes of the Andes, 16 to 117 mm/h in the southern Appalachians, and 0 to 106 mm/h in the Luquillo Mountains. These rates exceed those of most natural rain events, confirming that surface runoff is rare in montane forests with deep soil/regolith mantles. On well-drained forested slopes and ridges, apparent steadystate infiltration may be controlled by the near-surface downslope movement of infiltrated water rather than by characteristics of the full vertical soil profile. With only two exceptions, the local variability of infiltration rates at the scale of 10j m overpowered other expected spatial relationships between infiltration, vegetation type, slope position, and soil factors. One exception was the significant difference between infiltration rates on alluvial versus upland soils in the Andean study area. The other exception was the significant difference between infiltration rates in topographic coves compared to other slope positions in the tabonuco forest of one watershed in the Luquillo Mountains. Our research provides additional evidence of the ability of forests and forest soils to preserve geomorphic features from denudation by surface erosion, documents the importance of subsurface flow in mountain forests, and supports the need for caution in extrapolating infiltration rates.
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