Surface runoff from a hillside after soil is saturated
Surface runoff can be generated either by rainfall, snowfall or by the melting of snow, or glaciers.
Snow and glacier melt occur only in areas cold enough for these to form permanently. Typically snowmelt will peak in the spring and glacier melt in the summer, leading to pronounced flow maxima in rivers affected by them. The determining factor of the rate of melting of snow or glaciers is both air temperature and the duration of sunlight. In high mountain regions, streams frequently rise on sunny days and fall on cloudy ones for this reason.
In areas where there is no snow, runoff will come from rainfall. However, not all rainfall will produce runoff because storage from soils can absorb light showers. On the extremely ancient soils of Australia and Southern Africa, proteoid roots with their extremely dense networks of root hairs can absorb so much rainwater as to prevent runoff even when substantial amounts of rain fall. In these regions, even on less infertile cracking clay soils, high amounts of rainfall and potential evaporation are needed to generate any surface runoff, leading to specialised adaptations to extremely variable (usually ephemeral) streams.
Infiltration excess overland flow
This occurs when the rate of rainfall on a surface exceeds the rate at which water can infiltrate the ground, and any depression storage has already been filled. This is called flooding excess overland flow, Hortonian overland flow (after Robert E. Horton), or unsaturated overland flow. This more commonly occurs in arid and semi-arid regions, where rainfall intensities are high and the soil infiltration capacity is reduced because of surface sealing, or in paved areas. This occurs largely in city areas where pavements prevent water from flooding.
Saturation excess overland flow
When the soil is saturated and the depression storage filled, and rain continues to fall, the rainfall will immediately produce surface runoff. The level of antecedent soil moisture is one factor affecting the time until soil becomes saturated. This runoff is called saturation excess overland flow, saturated overland flow or Dunne runoff.
Antecedent soil moisture
Soil retains a degree of moisture after a rainfall. This residual water moisture affects the soil's infiltration capacity. During the next rainfall event, the infiltration capacity will cause the soil to be saturated at a different rate. The higher the level of antecedent soil moisture, the more quickly the soil becomes saturated. Once the soil is saturated, runoff occurs.
Subsurface return flow
After water infiltrates the soil on an up-slope portion of a hill, the water may flow laterally through the soil, and exfiltrate (flow out of the soil) closer to a channel. This is called subsurface return flow or throughflow.
As it flows, the amount of runoff may be reduced in a number of possible ways: a small portion of it may evapotranspire; water may become temporarily stored in microtopographic depressions; and a portion of it may infiltrate as it flows overland. Any remaining surface water eventually flows into a receiving water body such as a river, lake, estuary or ocean.