We critically examine historical and recent studies of flow and transport at the local scale within the capillary fringe (CF). The characterization of subsurface pathways traveled by water—and the impact of these pathways on the movement of chemicals and the viability of subsurface microbial populations—has been the subject of intensive investigation in the last 50 yr in the fields of soil science and hydrology. However, consideration of the complexity of local pathways within the CF has been largely ignored. Recent studies, as well as some historical ones, have reported observations of fluid flow and chemical transport within the CF, emphasizing the impact of physical heterogeneity and exchange of water and chemicals between the CF and the region below the water table. These observations lead to the conclusion that the CF may affect, at the local scale, the natural geochemical and microbial conditions present in the region of transition from unsaturated to saturated groundwater flow far more significantly than is usually assumed. Here, we examine underlying physical factors that control local flow and transport behaviors in and across the CF and illustrate these factors through examination of images collected in the laboratory. We also provide a brief survey of the literature on the CF. It is argued that existing definitions of the CF are inadequate to describe flow and transport behavior in the vicinity of the water table. We suggest replacing the concept of the CF with the concept of a partially saturated fringe, which involves multiphase transport in the immediate vicinity of (both above and below) the water table.

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