Skip to main content
SLU publication database (SLUpub)
Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2016

Understanding Preferential Flow in the Vadose Zone: Recent Advances and Future Prospects

Jarvis, Nicholas; Koestel, Johannes; Larsbo, Mats


In this update, we review some of the more significant advances that have been made in the last decade in the study of preferential flow through the vadose zone as well as suggest some research needs in the coming years. We focus mostly on work that aims to improve understanding of the processes themselves and less on more applied aspects concerning the various consequences of preferential flow (e.g., for surface water and groundwater quality). In recent years, the research emphasis has shifted somewhat toward the two extremes of the scale continuum, the pore scale and the scale of management ( field, catchments, and landscapes). This trend has been facilitated by significant advances in both measurement technologies (e.g., noninvasive imaging techniques and high frequency-high spatial resolution monitoring of soil moisture at field and catchment scales) and application of novel methods of analysis to large datasets (e.g., machine learning). This work has led to a better understanding of how pore network properties control preferential flow at the pore to core scales as well as some new insights into the influence of site attributes (climate, land uses, soil types) at field to landscape scales. We conclude that models do not at present fully reflect the current state of process understanding and empirical knowledge of preferential flow. However, we expect that significant advances in computational techniques, computer hardware, and measurement technologies will lead to increasingly reliable model predictions of the impacts of preferential flow, even at the larger scales relevant for management.

Published in

Vadose Zone Journal
2016, Volume: 15, number: 12