Self-potential (SP) data are of interest to vadose zone hydrology because of their direct sensitivity to water flow and ionic transport. There is unfortunately little consensus in the literature about how to best model SP data under partially saturated conditions, and different approaches (often supported by one laboratory data set alone) have been proposed. We argue that this lack of agreement can largely be traced to electrode effects that have not been properly taken into account. A series of drainage and imbibition experiments were considered in which we found that previously proposed approaches to remove electrode effects were unlikely to provide adequate corrections. Instead, we explicitly modeled the electrode effects together with classical SP contributions using a flow and transport model. The simulated data agreed overall with the observed SP signals and allowed decomposing the different signal contributions to analyze them separately. After reviewing other published experimental data, we suggest that most of them include electrode effects that have not been properly taken into account. Our results suggest that previously presented SP theory works well when considering the modeling uncertainties presently associated with electrode effects. Additional work is warranted to not only develop suitable electrodes for laboratory experiments but also to assure that associated electrode effects that appear inevitable in longer term experiments are predictable, so that they can be incorporated into the modeling framework.

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