EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Modelling Infiltration and Infiltration Excess: The Importance of Fast and Local Processes 

Axel Bronstert, Daniel Niehoff, and Gerd R. Schiffler
Axel Bronstert et al.
  • Chair for Hydrology and Climatology, University of Potsdam, Germany,

A major aim of physically based distributed hydrological models is an adequate representation of hydrological processes, including runoff generation processes. A significant proportion of runoff is generated through the subsurface, i.e. by groundwater flow or unsaturated subsurface stormflow. However, in the case of high rainfall intensity and/or low soil-surface infiltrability, surface runoff may strongly contribute to total runoff, too, either through saturation excess (“Dunne-type surface runoff”) or infiltration excess (“Hortonian surface runoff”). Both types of surface runoff can be rather important if antecedent wetness is high and parts of the catchment area are saturated (leading to saturation excess), or if the maximum infiltration rate into the soil surface is less than the actual rainfall intensity (resulting in infiltration excess). Even though the latter process can be very important during high-intensity rainstorms, both for flood generation and for matter transport linked with surface runoff, an appropriate consideration of this process in catchment models is still challenging. Actually, budgeting between the actual rainfall intensity and the soil surface infiltration capacity is required. This may appear simple in principle, but there are a number of challenges in the details: First, the ‘real’ rainfall intensity may vary tremendously in time increments much smaller than the time step of the model. The soil surface infiltrability can also be significantly reduced, e.g. by crusting, compaction or rain energy-induced sealing of the soil surface or through hydrophobic effects.

Otherwise, soil infiltrability can be strongly enhanced as a consequence of preferential flow paths / macropores caused by e.g. bioturbations or other voids.

Finally, there is high variability of such soil surface features appearing at a rather small spatial scale, below the typical spatial modelling unit.

This contribution presents observational data and model approaches to deal with these challenges. We show results from combined infiltration and infiltration-excess experiments and observations at three different spatial scales. Then, we present a model approach based on a double-porosity soil, thus enabling the combined modelling of high infiltration rates and dampened soil moisture distribution after termination of infiltration, as observable in the field. Furthermore, we present an approach to model the effects of soil surface conditions on actual infiltration capacity and its variation.

We show simulation results where these approaches improved the overall plausibility and explanatory power of the model concerning surface runoff generation and soil moisture dynamics. For instance, model results of infiltration experiments at the plot and hillslope/field scales show that it is possible to simulate high infiltration rates jointly with a relatively slow movement of moisture within the soil matrix, field phenomena often observed in the case of heavy rainfall. Other simulation efforts deal with the non-linear and space-time variable effects of soil surface conditions. This is a rather important feature for flood generation in the case of high rainfall intensity and low soil infiltrability.

How to cite: Bronstert, A., Niehoff, D., and Schiffler, G. R.: Modelling Infiltration and Infiltration Excess: The Importance of Fast and Local Processes , EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-7622,, 2023.