Using repeat electrical resistivity surveys to assess heterogeneity in soil moisture dynamics under contrasting vegetation types

Jonathan Dick, Doerthe Tetzlaff, John Bradford, Chris Soulsby

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As the relationship between vegetation and soil moisture is complex and reciprocal, there is a need to understand how spatial patterns in soil moisture influence the distribution of vegetation, and how the structure of vegetation canopies and root networks regulates the partitioning of precipitation. Spatial patterns of soil moisture are often difficult to visualise as usually, soil moisture is measured at point scales, and often difficult to extrapolate. Here, we address the difficulties in collecting large amounts of spatial soil moisture data through a study combining plot- and transect-scale electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) surveys to estimate soil moisture in a 3.2 km2 upland catchment in the Scottish Highlands. The aim was to assess the spatio-temporal variability in soil moisture under Scots pine forest (Pinus sylvestris) and heather moorland shrubs (Calluna vulgaris); the two dominant vegetation types in the Scottish Highlands. The study focussed on one year of fortnightly ERT surveys. The surveyed resistivity data was inverted and Archie’s law was used to calculate volumetric soil moisture by estimating parameters and comparing against field measured data. Results showed that spatial soil moisture patterns were more heterogeneous in the forest site, as were patterns of wetting and drying, which can be linked to vegetation distribution and canopy structure. The heather site showed a less heterogeneous response to wetting and drying, reflecting the more uniform vegetation cover of the shrubs. Comparing soil moisture temporal variability during growing and non-growing seasons revealed further contrasts: under the heather there was little change in soil moisture during the growing season. Greatest changes in the forest were in areas where the trees were concentrated reflecting water uptake and canopy partitioning. Such differences have implications for climate and land use changes; increased forest cover can lead to greater spatial variability, greater growing season temporal variability, and reduced levels of soil moisture, whilst projected decreasing summer precipitation may alter the feedbacks between soil moisture and vegetation water use and increase growing season soil moisture deficits.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)684-697
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Early online date21 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018

Bibliographical note

We thank the British Atmospheric Data Centre for the provision of meteorological data. We also thank the European Research Council ERC (project GA 335910 VEWA) for funding through the VeWa project and the Leverhulme Trust for funding through PLATO (RPG-2014-016). The authors are grateful to the editorial comments of Daniele Penna and careful constructive criticism from three anonymous reviewers which help improve the paper.


  • Electrical resistivity tomography
  • soil moisture
  • forest
  • moorland


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