Evaporation from a shallow water table: Diurnal dynamics of water and heat at the surface of drying sand

Shmuel Assouline, Scott W Tyler, John S. Selker, Ivan Lunati, C. W. Higgins, M. B. Parlange

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Accurate estimates of water losses by evaporation from shallow water tables are important for hydrological, agricultural, and climatic purposes. An experiment was conducted in a weighing lysimeter to characterize the diurnal dynamics of evaporation under natural conditions. Sampling revealed a completely dry surface sand layer after 5 days of evaporation. Its thickness was <1 cm early in the morning, increasing to reach 4-5 cm in the evening. This evidence points out fundamental limitations of the approaches that assume hydraulic connectivity from the water table up to the surface, as well as those that suppose monotonic drying when unsteady conditions prevail. The computed vapor phase diffusion rates from the apparent drying front based on Fick's law failed to reproduce the measured cumulative evaporation during the sampling day. We propose that two processes rule natural evaporation resulting from daily fluctuations of climatic variables: (i) evaporation of water, stored during nighttime due to redistribution and vapor condensation, directly into the atmosphere from the soil surface during the early morning hours, that could be simulated using a mass transfer approach and (ii) subsurface evaporation limited by Fickian diffusion, afterward. For the conditions prevailing during the sampling day, the amount of water stored at the vicinity of the soil surface was 0.3 mm and was depleted before 11:00. Combining evaporation from the surface before 11:00 and subsurface evaporation limited by Fickian diffusion after that time, the agreement between the estimated and measured cumulative evaporation was significantly improved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4022-4034
Number of pages13
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • diurnal dynamics
  • drying
  • evaporation
  • Fickian diffusion

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