Characterization of water content dynamics and tracer breakthrough by 3-D electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) under transient unsaturated conditions

Markus Wehrer, Lee D. Slater

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Characterization of preferential flow and transport is still a major challenge but may be improved employing noninvasive, tomographic methods. In this study, 3-D time lapse electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) was employed during infiltration on an undisturbed, unsaturated soil core in a laboratory lysimeter. A tracer breakthrough was conducted during transient conditions by applying a series of short-term infiltrations, simulating natural precipitation events. The electrical response was quantitatively validated using data from a multicompartment suction sampler. Water content probes were also installed for ground-truthing of ERT responses. Water content variations associated with an infiltration front dominated the electrical response observed during individual short-term infiltration events, permitting analysis of water content dynamics from ERT data. We found that, instead of the application of an uncertain petrophysical function, shape measures of the electrical conductivity response might be used for constraining hydrological models. Considering tracer breakthroughs, the ERT observed voxel responses from time lapse tomograms at constant water contents in between infiltration events were used to quantitatively characterize the breakthrough curve. Shape parameters of the breakthrough derived from ERT, such as average velocity, were highly correlated with the shape parameters derived from local tracer breakthrough curves observed in the compartments of the suction plate. The study demonstrates that ERT can provide reliable quantitative information on both, tracer breakthroughs and water content variations under the challenging conditions of variable background electrical conductivity of the pore solution and non steady-state infiltration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)97-124
Number of pages28
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


  • heterogeneous transport
  • mobile-immobile
  • multicompartment sampler
  • noninvasive monitoring
  • preferential flow
  • shape measures


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