Impact of multi-day rainfall events on surface roughness and physical crusting of very fine soils

Soil surface roughness (SSR), a description of the micro-relief of soils, affects the surface storage capacity of soils, influences the threshold flow for wind and water erosion and determines interactions and feedback processes between the terrestrial and atmospheric systems at a range of scales. Rainfall is an important determinant of SSR as it can cause the dislocation, reorientation and packing of soil particles and may result in the formation of physical soil crusts which can, in turn, affect the roughness and hydrological properties of soils. This paper describes an experiment to investigate the impact of a multi-day rainfall event on the SSR and physical crusting of very fine soils with low organic matter content, typical of a semi-arid environment. Changes in SSR are quantified using geostatistically-derived indicators calculated from semivariogram analysis of high resolution laser scans of the soil surface captured at a horizontal resolution of 78 μm (0.078 mm) and a vertical resolution of 12 μm (0.012 mm). Application of 2 mm, 5 mm and 2 mm of rainfall each separated by a 24 h drying period resulted in soils developing a structural two-layered ‘sieving’ crust characterised by a sandy micro-layer at the surface overlying a thin seal of finer particles. Analysis of the geostatistics and soil characteristics (e.g. texture, surface resistance, infiltration rate) suggests that at this scale of enquiry, and for low rainfall amounts, both the vertical and horizontal components of SSR are determined by raindrop impact rather than aggregate breakdown. This is likely due to the very fine nature of the soils and the low rainfall amounts applied.