Soil moisture causes dynamic adjustments to root reinforcement that reduce slope stability
In steep soil-mantled landscapes, the initiation of shallow landslides is strongly controlled by the distribution of vegetation, whose roots reinforce the soil. The magnitude of root reinforcement depends on the number, diameter distribution, orientation and the mechanical properties of roots that cross potential failure planes. Understanding how these properties vary in space and time in forests remains a significant challenge. Here we test the hypothesis that spatio-temporal variations in root reinforcement along a hillslope occur as a function of topographic soil moisture gradients. To test this hypothesis we compared root reinforcement measurements from relatively dry, divergent noses to relatively wet, convergent hollows in the southern Appalachian Mountains, North Carolina, USA. Our initial results showed that root reinforcement decreased in areas of higher soil moisture because the tensile strength of roots decreased. A post hoc laboratory experiment further demonstrated that root tensile strength decreased as root moisture content increased. This effect is consistent with other experiments on stem woods showing that increased water content in the cell wall decreases tensile strength. Our experimental data demonstrated that roots can adjust to changes in the external root moisture conditions within hours, suggesting that root moisture content will change over the timescale of large storm events (hours–days). We assessed the effects of the dynamic changes in root tensile strength to the magnitude of apparent cohesion within the infinite slope stability model. Slopes can be considerably less stable when precipitation-driven increases in saturated soil depth both increase pore pressures and decrease root reinforcement.