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Cross-section of a hillslope depicting the vadose zone, capillary fringe, water table, and phreatic or saturated zone. (Source: United States Geological Survey.)

The vadose zone, also termed the unsaturated zone, is the portion of Earth between the land surface and the phreatic zone or zone of saturation ("vadose" is Latin for "shallow"). It extends from the top of the ground surface to the water table. Water in the vadose zone has a pressure head less than atmospheric pressure, and is retained by a combination of adhesion (funiculary groundwater), and capillary action (capillary groundwater). If the vadose zone envelops soil, the water contained therein is termed soil moisture.

Movement of water within the vadose zone is studied within soil physics and hydrology, particularly hydrogeology, and is of importance to agriculture, contaminant transport, and flood control. The Richards equation is often used to mathematically describe the flow of water, which is based partially on Darcy's law. Groundwater recharge, which is an important process that refills aquifers, generally occurs through the vadose zone from precipitation.

In speleology, cave passages formed in the vadose zone tend to be canyon-like in shape, as the water dissolves bedrock on the floor of the passage[1]. Passages created in completely water-filled conditions are called phreatic passages and tend to be circular in cross-section[2].

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