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This article in SSSAJ

  1. Vol. 74 No. 3, p. 717-733
    Received: Aug 26, 2009

    * Corresponding author(s): garey.fox@okstate.edu
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The Role of Subsurface Flow in Hillslope and Stream Bank Erosion: A Review

  1. Garey A. Fox *a and
  2. G. V. Wilsonb
  1. a Dep. of Biosystems and Agric. Eng. Oklahoma State Univ. Stillwater, OK 74078
    b USDA-ARS, National Sedimentation Lab. 598 McElroy Dr. Oxford, MS 38655


Sediment is one of the most common causes of stream impairment. Great progress has been made in understanding the processes of soil erosion due to surface runoff and incorporating these in prediction technologies. In many landscapes, however, the dominant source of sediment is derived from mass wasting of hillslopes and stream banks, potentially driven by subsurface flow. We highlight the mechanisms and importance of subsurface flow processes in erosion associated with hillslopes and stream banks. Subsurface flow affects erosion directly by seepage and pipe flow processes and indirectly by the relationship of soil properties with soil water pressure. Seepage contributes to erosion through interrelated mechanisms: hydraulic gradient forces that reduce the resistance of the particle to dislodging from the soil matrix and particle mobilization when soil particles become entrained in exfiltrating water. Preferential flow through soil pipes results in internal erosion of the pipe, which may produce gullies by tunnel collapse. The eroded material can clog soil pipes, causing pore water pressure buildup inside the pipes that can result in landslides, debris flows, embankment failures, or reestablishment of ephemeral gullies. Research in the past decades has advanced our understanding of these processes, leading to mathematical relationships that can be incorporated into mechanistic, process-based models. Further research advances are necessary, however, especially on the complexity of the interactive effects of surface flow, seepage, pipe flow, and vegetation on soil erosion properties. More information is needed on the extent that subsurface flow contributes to hillslope and stream bank erosion. We believe that multidisciplinary efforts between soil scientists, geotechnical engineers, hydraulic engineers, and hydrologists are necessary to fully understand and integrate subsurface flow and soil erosion processes in simulation tools.

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