Articles | Volume 18, issue 2
Research article
28 Feb 2014
Research article |  | 28 Feb 2014

True colors – experimental identification of hydrological processes at a hillslope prone to slide

P. Schneider, S. Pool, L. Strouhal, and J. Seibert

Abstract. This study investigated runoff formation processes of a pre-alpine hillslope prone to slide. The experimental pasture plot (40 m × 60 m) is located in the northern front range of the Swiss Alps on a 30° steep hillslope (1180 m a.s.l., 1500 + mm annual precipitation). A gleysol (H-Go-Gr) overlies weathered marlstone and conglomerate of subalpine molasse. We conducted sprinkling experiments on a subplot (10 m × 10 m) with variable rainfall intensities. During both experiments fluorescein line-tracer injections into the topsoil, and sodium chloride (NaCl) injections into the sprinkling water were used to monitor flow velocities in the soil. The observed flow velocities for fluorescein in the soil were 1.2 and 1.4 × 10−3 m s−1. The NaCl breakthrough occurred almost simultaneously in all monitored discharge levels (0.05, 0.25 and 1.0 m depth), indicating a high-infiltration capacity and efficient drainage of the soil. These initial observations suggested "transmissivity feedback", a form of subsurface stormflow, as the dominant runoff process. However, the results of a brilliant blue dye tracer experiment completely changed our perceptions of the hillslope's hydrological processes. Excavation of the dye-stained soils highlighted the dominance of "organic layer interflow", a form of shallow subsurface stormflow. The dye stained the entire H horizon, vertical soil fractures, and macropores (mostly worm burrows) up to 0.5 m depth. Lateral drainage in the subsoil or at the soil–bedrock interface was not observed, and thus was limited to the organic topsoil. In the context of shallow landslides, the subsoil (Go/Gr) acted as an infiltration and exfiltration barrier, which produced significant lateral saturated drainage in the topsoil (H) and possibly a confined aquifer in the bedrock.