The role of the subcutaneous zone in karst hydrology
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The subcutaneous zone is the upper weathered layer of rock beneath the soil, but above the permanently saturated (phreatic) zone. It is of particular hydrological importance in karst because of its high secondary permeability, arising from the considerable chemical solution in this zone. However, corrosional enlargement of fissures diminishes with depth; thus permeability decreases in the same direction with the result that percolation is inhibited, except down widened master joints and faults. Storage of water consequently occurs in this zone, particularly after storms. The upper surface of this suspended saturated layer in the subcutaneous zone is defined by a perched water table, which slopes towards points of rapid vertical percolation. The potential induces lateral water movement converging on the most permeable areas such as beneath dolines. Leakage from the subcutaneous store sustains slow percolation in the vadose zone. Cross-correlation of rainfall with percolation rates in caves in New Mexico, U.S.A., and New Zealand reveal response lags of 2–14 weeks with no apparent relationship to depth below the surface. Other percolation sites show no correlation with rainfall; interpreted as being a consequence of considerable friction in tight fissure networks. The recognition of storage and rapid as well as very slow percolation from the subcutaneous zone requires re-interpretation of the components of hydrographs from karst springs and of some conceptual models of karst aquifers. The importance of subcutaneous storage in sustaining baseflow discharge at some sites must be recognised, as must the contribution of subcutaneous water to flood hydrographs. Methods of estimating the volumes of subcutaneous and phreatic components of karst-spring flood hydrographs are presented. The paper concludes with a discussion of the significance of subcutaneous hydrologic processes for an understanding of karst geomorphology. The desirability of explaining karst landform evolution in terms of hydrologic processes is stressed.