Soil Moisture Dynamics and Evaporation in Arid Intermountain Environments

Friday, 19 December 2014
Chaoxun Hang1, Eric Pardyjak1, Daniel F Nadeau2, Derek D Jensen1 and Sebastian Hoch3, (1)University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, United States, (2)Polytechnique Montréal, Montréal, Canada, (3)University of Utah, Atmospheric Sciences, Salt Lake City, UT, United States
Mountain flows have been studied for several decades now and it is safe to say that their main features are well understood under steady conditions and over idealized terrain. The Mountain Terrain Atmospheric Modeling and Observations (MATERHORN) program was designed to better understand atmospheric fluid dynamics across all scales over realistic mountainous terrain as well as under transient and steady conditions. As part of MATERHORN, a large field campaign was conducted in May 2013. The main study area, a playa site, covers an area of several hundred square kilometers. It is mostly devoid of vegetation, characterized by a flat surface, shallow water table and a heterogeneous soil moisture spatial distribution even in dry conditions. Recent studies have shown that soil moisture plays a critical role in the dynamics of mountain flows, but a detailed understanding of these has not been sufficiently quantified. The objectives of this study are thus: 1) to quantify the spatial heterogeneity of soil moisture on the playa site; 2) to describe how soil moisture affects the surface energy balance; 3) to identify the key controlling mechanisms on evaporation after a rain event in an arid area; 4) to explore the existence of nocturnal evaporation and investigate its main driving factors. To do this, we applied the gravimetric method to measure volumetric water content in the surface soil layer (0 – 2 cm and 4 – 6 cm) twice per 24-h intensive observation period at 17 sites evenly distributed on a 180 x 240 m grid. Near-surface atmospheric variables as well as ground heat-flux were also measured by a flux tower located close to the soil sampling sites. Preliminary data analysis reveals that the highest spatial variability in surface soil moisture is found under dry conditions. Our results also show that decreasing surface albedo with increasing soil moisture sustained a powerful positive feedback loop promoting large evaporation rates. Finally, it was found that while nocturnal evaporation was negligible during dry time periods, it was quite significant (up to 30% of the daily cumulative flux) during nights following rain events. Overall this study allows us to better understand the mechanisms underlying soil moisture dynamics in desert playas as well as evaporation following occasional rain events.