Articles | Volume 2, issue 3
Original research article
12 Aug 2016
Original research article |  | 12 Aug 2016

Characterization of stony soils' hydraulic conductivity using laboratory and numerical experiments

Eléonore Beckers, Mathieu Pichault, Wanwisa Pansak, Aurore Degré, and Sarah Garré

Abstract. Determining soil hydraulic properties is of major concern in various fields of study. Although stony soils are widespread across the globe, most studies deal with gravel-free soils, so that the literature describing the impact of stones on the hydraulic conductivity of a soil is still rather scarce. Most frequently, models characterizing the saturated hydraulic conductivity of stony soils assume that the only effect of rock fragments is to reduce the volume available for water flow, and therefore they predict a decrease in hydraulic conductivity with an increasing stoniness. The objective of this study is to assess the effect of rock fragments on the saturated and unsaturated hydraulic conductivity. This was done by means of laboratory experiments and numerical simulations involving different amounts and types of coarse fragments. We compared our results with values predicted by the aforementioned predictive models. Our study suggests that it might be ill-founded to consider that stones only reduce the volume available for water flow. We pointed out several factors of the saturated hydraulic conductivity of stony soils that are not considered by these models. On the one hand, the shape and the size of inclusions may substantially affect the hydraulic conductivity. On the other hand, laboratory experiments show that an increasing stone content can counteract and even overcome the effect of a reduced volume in some cases: we observed an increase in saturated hydraulic conductivity with volume of inclusions. These differences are mainly important near to saturation. However, comparison of results from predictive models and our experiments in unsaturated conditions shows that models and data agree on a decrease in hydraulic conductivity with stone content, even though the experimental conditions did not allow testing for stone contents higher than 20 %.

Short summary
Determining the behaviour of stony soils with respect to infiltration and storage of water is of major importance, since stony soils are widespread across the globe. The most common procedure to overcome this difficulty is to describe the hydraulic characteristics of a stony soils in terms of the fine fraction of soil corrected for the volume of stones present. Our study suggests that considering this hypothesis might be ill-founded, especially for saturated soils.