The semi-arid sagebrush steppe in the western United States faces pressures from the agriculture industry, recreation use, invasive grasses, and a changing climate. A key to facilitating the healthy management of this ecosystem is understanding the distribution and behavior of soil moisture in the vadose zone in both natural and agricultural settings. Within unsaturated environments, soil moisture is spatially and temporally heterogeneous, and changes in porosity and permeability within arid soils complicate characterization of soil hydrologic properties. Importantly, accumulations of ‘caliche’ or pedogenic calcium carbonate in arid soils can greatly limit permeability; however, observing the role that caliche plays in the hydrologic process is difficult because the installation of in situ instruments disturbs the soils and only provides information at a single point. To investigate vadose zone processes on a broad temporal and spatial scale, we installed a 7x8m2 electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) array at the Reynolds Creek Critical Zone Observatory in southwestern Idaho. Existing soil moisture observations show that infiltration is limited to depths less than 60 cm at this site, as compared to at least 90 cm at other sites in the watershed. To capture the seasonal wetting and drying of the soils, as well as the soils’ response to rainfall events, we monitored the site bi-weekly during the spring, summer, and fall of 2015 and 2016. A time-lapse ERT array was placed adjacent to coaxial impedance dielectric reflectometry (CIDR) probes so that the time-lapse ERT data could be referenced to precise measurements of volumetric water content. In addition to the measurements provided by the ERT array and CIDR probes, soil texture analysis and soil profile descriptions from a near-by soil pit show typical arid soil morphology, with accumulations of clays and calcium carbonate in the B horizon. The resulting ERT inversions show the following soil structure: (1) a high-resistivity top layer corresponding with minor amounts of pedogenic calcium carbonate; (2) a low-resistivity intermediate layer at depths corresponding with substantial accumulations (stage IV) of carbonate; and (3) a high-resistivity deep saprolite. The resistivity of the top layer varies seasonally with changes in precipitation, while the intermediate carbonate soil layer does not. This agrees well with the changes in soil moisture with depth measured by the CIDR probes and suggests that the top of the carbonate soil layer limits infiltration. However vertical structure and cracks within the carbonate soil layer create vertical preferential flow paths; resistivity within these flow paths responds to large precipitation events and seasonal changes in soil moisture. This implies that the preferential flow paths are a conduit for soil moisture flow that is not captured by the CIDR probes. From the combined interpretation of the ERT and CIDR we conclude that soil structure and the presence of calcic soil horizons inhibits soil moisture infiltration during both the summer dry months and the winter wet flux period; however, preferential flow paths provide an important vertical connection between the deep and shallow portions of the critical zone.
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Nielson, Travis; Bradford, John; Pierce, Jen; and Seyfried, Mark. (2021). "Soil Structure and Soil Moisture Dynamics Inferred from Time-Lapse Electrical Resistivity Tomography". Catena, 207, 105553. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.catena.2021.105553