The hydrologic nature of swales uncovers remarkable influence of non-topographic factors on catchment-scale soil moisture variation

Yaling Zhang, Yanjia Jiang, Xiangyang Sun, Hongxia Li, Chuan Yuan, Hu Liu, Jinzhao Liu, Carlos R. Mello, Elizabeth W. Boyer, Li Guo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Concave hillslopes, also known as swales, play a pivotal role in facilitating the transfer of water and nutrients from hillslopes to riparian zones in headwater catchments by serving as pathways for surface and subsurface flow. Swales have long been recognized as hydrologic wet spots that contribute significantly to catchment runoff. However, long-term in situ observations have rarely confirmed this conventional understanding. In this study, we present a comprehensive analysis of three years of daily soil moisture measurements taken at multiple depths across 33 sites within a forested catchment to delineate key determinants of soil moisture variation at the catchment scale. Contrary to conventional understanding, our findings indicate that swales may represent areas of lower soil moisture, with those located on sunny hillslopes experiencing a higher frequency of dry conditions, amounting to 13.31% of the time during the study period, when compared to other topographical features such as slopes, valleys, and ridges. Topography alone accounted for less than half of the variation of soil moisture across the catchment. Whereas non-topographic factors (such as vegetation, soil porosity, soil temperature, and soil depth) strongly influenced soil moisture distribution in time and space. To better capture the nuances of soil moisture dynamics, we propose an enhancement to the Topographic Wetness Index (TWI) through the incorporation of non-topographic variables, which improves the model's representation of soil moisture variations. Our findings elucidate the complex interactions between topographic and non-topographic factors in shaping soil moisture dynamics at the catchment scale, offering valuable insights for refining process-based hydrological models and contributing to a deeper understanding of the spatial and temporal variability of soil moisture in headwater catchments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number131196
JournalJournal of Hydrology
StatePublished - May 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology

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