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Infiltration

Infiltration is the process by which water on the ground surface enters the soil. Infiltration rate in soil science is a measure of the rate at which soil is able to absorb rainfall or irrigation. It is measured in inches per hour or millimeters per hour. The rate decreases as the soil becomes saturated. If the precipitation rate exceeds the infiltration rate, runoff will usually occur unless there is some physical barrier. It is related to the saturated hydraulic conductivity of the near-surface soil. The rate of infiltration can be measured using an infiltrometer. Infiltration is governed by two forces, gravity and capillary action. While smaller pores offer greater resistance to gravity, very small pores pull water through capillary action in addition to and even against the force of gravity. The rate of infiltration is determined by soil characteristics including ease of entry, storage capacity, and transmission rate through the soil. The soil texture and structure, vegetation types and cover, water content of the soil, soil temperature, and rainfall intensity all play a role in controlling infiltration rate and capacity. For example, coarse-grained sandy soils have large spaces between each grain and allow water to infiltrate quickly. Vegetation creates more porous soils by both protecting the soil from raindrop impact, which can close natural gaps between soil particles, and loosening soil through root action. This is why forested areas have the highest infiltration rates of any vegetative types. The top layer of leaf litter that is not decomposed protects the soil from the pounding action of rain; without this the soil can become far less permeable. In chaparral vegetated areas, the hydrophobic oils in the succulent leaves can be spread over the soil surface with fire, creating large areas of hydrophobic soil. Other conditions that can lower infiltration rates or block them include dry plant litter that resists re-wetting, or frost. If soil is saturated at the time of an intense freezing period, the soil can become a concrete frost on which almost no infiltration would occur. Over an entire watershed, there are likely to be gaps in the concrete frost or hygroscopic soil where water can infiltrate. Once water has infiltrated the soil it remains in the soil, percolates down to the ground water table, or becomes part of the subsurface runoff process.

 

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