02 Jan 2023
 | 02 Jan 2023

Energy efficiency in transient surface runoff and sediment fluxes on hillslopes – a concept to quantify the effectiveness of extreme events

Samuel Schroers, Ulrike Scherer, and Erwin Zehe

Abstract. Surface runoff over time shapes the morphology of the landscape. The resulting forms and patterns have been shown to follow distinct rules, which hold throughout almost all terrestrial catchments. Given the complexity and variety of the earth’s runoff processes, those findings have inspired researchers for over a century, and they resulted in many principles and sometimes proclaimed laws to explain the physics that govern the evolution of landforms and river networks. Most of those point to the 1st and 2nd law of thermodynamics, which describe conservation and dissipation of free energy through fluxes depleting their driving gradients. Here we start with both laws but expand the related principles to explain the coevolution of surface runoff and hillslope morphology by using measurable hydraulic and hydrological variables. We argue that a release of the frequent assumption of steady states is key, as the maximum work that surface runoff can perform on the sediments relates not only to the surface structure but also to “refueling” of the system with potential energy by rainfall events. To account for both factors, we introduce the concept of relative dissipation, relating frictional energy dissipation to the energy influx, which essentially characterises energy efficiency of the hillslope when treated as an open, dissipative power engine. Generally, we find that such a hillslope engine is energetically rather inefficient, although the well-known Carnot limit does not apply here, as surface runoff is not driven by temperature differences. Given the transient and intermittent behaviour of rainfall runoff, we explore the transient free energy balance with respect to energy efficiency, comparing typical hillslope forms that represent a sequence of morphological stages and dominant erosion processes. In a first part, we simulate three rainfall-runoff scenarios by numerically solving the shallow water equations and we analyse those in terms of relative dissipation. The results suggest that older hillslope forms, where advective soil wash erosion dominates, are less efficient than younger forms which relate to diffusive erosion regimes. In the second part of this study, we use the concept of relative dissipation to analyse two observed rainfall runoff extremes in the small rural Weiherbach catchment. Both flood events are extreme, with estimated return periods of 10000 years and produced considerable erosion. Using a previously calibrated, distributed physics-based model, we analyse the free energy balance of surface runoff simulated for the 169 model hillslopes and determine the work that was performed on the eroded sediments. This reveals, that relative dissipation is largest on hillslope forms which relate to diffusive soil creep erosion, and lowest for hillslope profiles relating to advective soil wash erosion. We also find that power in surface runoff and power in the complementary infiltration flux are during both events almost identical. Moreover, there is a clear hierarchy of work, which surface runoff expended on the sediments and relative dissipation between characteristic hillslope clusters. For hillslope forms that are more energy efficient in producing surface-runoff, on average a larger share of the free energy of surface runoff performs work on the sediments (detachment and transport) and vice versa. We thus conclude that the energy efficiency of overland flow during events does indeed constrain erosional work and the degree of freedom for morphological changes. We conjecture that hillslope forms and overland dynamics coevolve, triggered by an overshoot in power during intermittent rainfall runoff events, towards a decreasing energy efficiency in overland flow. This implies a faster depletion of energy gradients during events, and a stepwise downregulation of the available power to trigger further morphological development.

Samuel Schroers et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-1301', Anonymous Referee #1, 31 Jan 2023
    • AC1: 'Reply on RC1', Samuel Schroers, 18 Feb 2023
  • RC2: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-1301', Anonymous Referee #2, 21 Mar 2023
    • AC2: 'Reply on RC2', Samuel Schroers, 12 Apr 2023

Samuel Schroers et al.

Model code and software

McCormack Scheme for solving 1D Shallow Water Equations Samuel Schroers

Samuel Schroers et al.


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Short summary
The hydrological cycle shapes our landscape and reverse. With an accelerating change of the world's climate and hydrological dynamics, concepts of evolution of natural systems become more important. In this study we elaborated a thermodynamic framework for runoff and sediment transport and show from model results as well as from measurements during extreme events, that the developed concept is useful for understanding the evolution of the system's mass, energy and entropy fluxes.