Relating land surface, water table, and weathering fronts with a conceptual valve model for headwater catchments

Susan L. Brantley, Marina I. Lebedeva

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Knowing little about how porosity and permeability are distributed at depth, we commonly develop models of groundwater by treating the subsurface as a homogeneous black box even though porosity and permeability vary with depth. One reason for this depth variation is that infiltrating meteoric water reacts with minerals to affect porosity in localized zones called reaction fronts. We are beginning to learn to map and model these fronts beneath headwater catchments and show how they are distributed. The subsurface landscapes defined by these fronts lie subparallel to the soil-air interface but with lower relief. They can be situated above, below, or at the water table. These subsurface landscapes of reaction are important because porosity developed from weathering can control subsurface water storage. In addition, porosity often changes at the weathering fronts, and when this affects permeability significantly, the front can act like a valve that re-orients water flowing through the subsurface. We explore controls on the positions of reaction fronts under headwater landscapes by accounting for the timescales of erosion, chemical equilibration, and solute transport. One strong control on the landscape of subsurface reaction is the land surface geometry, which is in turn a function of the erosion rate. In addition, the reaction fronts, like the water table, are strongly affected by the lithology and water infiltration rate. We hypothesize that relationships among the land surface, reaction fronts, and the water table are controlled by feedbacks that can push landscapes towards an ‘ideal hill’. In this steady state, reaction-front valves partition water volumes into shallow and deep flowpaths. These flows dissolve low- and high-solubility minerals, respectively, allowing their reaction fronts to advance at the erosion rate. This conceptualization could inform better models of subsurface porosity and permeability, replacing the black box.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere14010
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


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