Year of Publication


Document Type



Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Jonathan D. Phillips


Subsurface solutional pathways make limestone terrains sensitive to changes in soil properties that regulate flows to the epikarst. This study examines biogeomorphic factors responsible for changed water movements and erosion in fluviokarst slopes deforested 200 years ago along the Kentucky River, Kentucky. In this project, infiltration and water content data from forest and fescue grass soil profiles were analyzed within a detailed overview of system factors regulating hillslope hydrology. Results show that grass has growth and rooting characteristics that tend to create a larger volume of lateral water movement in upper soil layers than occurs under forests. This sets up the current emergent pattern of erosion in which water perches at grass slope bases and overwhelms pre-existing epikarst drainage. Tree roots are able to cause solution at multiple discrete points of entry into fractures and bedding planes, increasing storage capacity and releasing sediment over time. Grass roots do not enter bedrock, and their rooting depth limits diffuse vertical preferential flow in root channels to above one meter. In the areas dense clay soils, flow under grass is conducted sideways either through the regolith or at the bedrock surface. Rapid flow along rock faces in hillslope benches likely moves fines via subsurface routes from the hillslope shoulders, causing the exposure of flat outcrops under grass. Lower growing season evapotranspiration also promotes higher grass summer flow volumes. Gullying occurs at sensitive points where cutters pass from the uphill grassed area into the forest, or where flow across the bedrock surface crosses grass/forest boundaries oriented vertical to the slope. At these locations, loss of the protective grass root mat, coupled with instigation of tree root preferential flow in saturated soils, causes soil pipes to develop. Fluviokarst land management decisions should be based on site-specific slope, soil depth, and epkarst drainage conditions, since zones sensitive to erosion are formed by spatial and temporal conjunctions of a large number of lithologic, karst, soil, climate, and vegetation factors. This study shows that it is the composite of differing influences created by forest and grass that make forests critical for soil retention in high-energy limestone terrains.