Recent theory and field observations suggest that a systematically varying weathering zone, that can be tens of meters thick, commonly develops in the bedrock underlying hillslopes. Weathering turns otherwise poorly conductive bedrock into a dynamic water storage reservoir. Infiltrating precipitation typically will pass through unsaturated weathered bedrock before reaching groundwater and running off to streams. This invisible and difficult to access unsaturated zone is virtually unexplored compared with the surface soil mantle. We have proposed the term “rock moisture” to describe the exchangeable water stored in the unsaturated zone in weathered bedrock, purposely choosing a term parallel to, but distinct from, soil moisture, because weathered bedrock is a distinctly different material that is distributed across landscapes independently of soil thickness. Here, we report a multiyear intensive campaign of quantifying rock moisture across a hillslope underlain by a thick weathered bedrock zone using repeat neutron probe measurements in a suite of boreholes. Rock moisture storage accumulates in the wet season, reaches a characteristic upper value, and rapidly passes any additional rainfall downward to groundwater. Hence, rock moisture storage mediates the initiation and magnitude of recharge and runoff. In the dry season, rock moisture storage is gradually depleted by trees for transpiration, leading to a common lower value at the end of the dry season. Up to 27% of the annual rainfall is seasonally stored as rock moisture. Significant rock moisture storage is likely common, and yet it is missing from hydrologic and land-surface models used to predict regional and global climate.
Rempe, D. and Dietrich, W.E. (2018): Direct observations of rock moisture, a hidden component of the hydrologic cycle. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1800141115