Journal of Soils and Sediments

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 171–185 | Cite as

Understanding the mechanisms of soil water repellency from nanoscale to ecosystem scale: a review

  • Jiefei Mao
  • Klaas G. J. Nierop
  • Stefan C. Dekker
  • Louis W. Dekker
  • Baoliang ChenEmail author
Soils, Sec 2 • Global Change, Environ Risk Assess, Sustainable Land Use • Review Article



Soil water repellency (SWR) can interrupt water infiltration that may decline plant growth and potentially trigger soil erosion. Until now research has been mainly focused on understanding the mechanisms of SWR at different scales by observation and modelling studies.

Materials and methods

This review systematically discusses the possible mechanisms at different scales of the occurrence and persistence of SWR from nanoscale to ecosystem scale.

Results and discussion

Soil characteristics are strongly related to the severity of SWR, particularly in soil organic matter and soil moisture. The presence of a higher amount of hydrophobic organic compounds and lower soil moisture content lead to higher water repellency, suggesting that the interaction at the nanoscale between organic compounds and water molecules primarily determines the persistence of SWR. The repeated alternation of drying-wetting process largely modifies the relationship between water molecules and soil particles that impacts the possibility of SWR from hydrophilic in wet condition to hydrophobic in dry condition. Within ecosystem scale, vegetation and microbes are original sources of SWR-inducing compounds influencing the distribution and prevalence of SWR. Nevertheless, the challenge of global climate change, drought and warming can increase SWR. Extreme SWR induces more serious runoff and overland flow that is enhanced by intensive precipitation.


We conclude that understanding the interaction of water molecules and organic compounds at soil particle surface is essential to understand SWR at the nanoscale. Expanding the mechanisms of SWR from nanoscale to a larger scale is fundamental to improve the remediation of soil pollution and mitigate global change.


Ecosystem Nanoscale Organic compounds Soil hydrophobicity Soil moisture 


Funding information

This project was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant 21425730, 21537005 and 21621005), the National Basic Research Program of China (Grant 2014CB441106), the National Science Foundation for Young Scientists of China (Grant 21707118), and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (Grant 2017FZA6006).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental Science, Zhejiang Provincial Key Laboratory of Organic Pollution Process and ControlZhejiang UniversityHangzhouChina
  2. 2.Department of Earth Sciences-Organic Geochemistry, Faculty of GeosciencesUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development- Environmental Sciences, Faculty of GeosciencesUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  4. 4.Soil Physics and Land Management GroupWageningen University and ResearchWageningenThe Netherlands
  5. 5.Faculty of Management, Science, and TechnologyDepartment of Science, Netherlands Open UniversityHeerlenThe Netherlands

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