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  1. Abstract

    The complex ecohydrological processes of rangelands can be studied through the framework of ecological sites (ESs) or hillslope‐scale soil–vegetation complexes. High‐quality hydrologic field investigations are needed to quantitatively link ES characteristics to hydrologic function. Geophysical tools are useful in this context because they provide valuable information about the subsurface at appropriate spatial scales. We conducted 20 field experiments in which we deployed time‐lapse electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), variable intensity rainfall simulation, ground‐penetrating radar (GPR), and seismic refraction, on hillslope plots at five different ESs within the Upper Crow Creek Watershed in south‐east Wyoming. Surface runoff was measured using a precalibrated flume. Infiltration data from the rainfall simulations, coupled with site‐specific resistivity–water content relationships and ERT datasets, were used to spatially and temporally track the progression of the wetting front. First‐order constraints on subsurface structure were made at each ES using the geophysical methods. Sites ranged from infiltrating 100% of applied rainfall to infiltrating less than 60%. Analysis of covariance results indicated significant differences in the rate of wetting front progression, ranging from 0.346 m min−1/2for sites with a subsurface dominated by saprolitic material to 0.156 m min−1/2for sites with a well‐developed soil profile. There was broad agreement in subsurface structure between the geophysical methods with GPR typically providing the most detail. Joint interpretation of the geophysics showed that subsurface features such as soil layer thickness and the location of subsurface obstructions such as granite corestones and material boundaries had a large effect on the rate of infiltration and subsurface flow processes. These features identified through the geophysics varied significantly by ES. By linking surface hydrologic information from the rainfall simulations with subsurface information provided by the geophysics, we can characterize the ES‐specific hydrologic response. Both surface and subsurface flow processes differed among sites and are directly linked to measured characteristics.

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