Aspect Influences on Soil Water Retention and Storage

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Many catchment hydrologic and ecologic processes are impacted by the storage capacity of soil water, which is dictated by the profile thickness and water retention properties of soil. Soil water retention properties are primarily controlled by soil texture, which in turn varies spatially in response to microclimate-induced differences in insolation, wetness and temperature. All of these variables can be strongly differentiated by slope aspect. In this study, we compare quantitative measures of soil water retention capacity for two opposing slopes in a semi-arid catchment in southwest Idaho, USA. Undisturbed soil cores from north and south aspects were subjected to a progressive drainage experiment to estimate the soil water retention curve for each sample location. The relatively large sample size (35) supported statistical analysis of slope scale differences in soil water retention between opposing aspects. Soils on the north aspect retain as much as 25% more water at any given soil water pressure than samples from the south aspect slope. Soil porosity, soil organic matter and silt content were all greater on the north aspect, and each contributed to greater soil water retention. These results, along with the observation that soils on north aspect slopes tend to be deeper, indicate that north aspect slopes can store more water from the wet winter months into the dry summer in this region, an observation with potential implications on ecological function and landscape evolution.