The vadose zone, also (but somewhat incorrectly) termed the unsaturated zone, is the part of Earth between the land surface and the top of the phreatic zone i.e. the position at which the groundwater (the water in the soil's pores) is at atmospheric pressure ("vadose" is Latin for "shallow"). Hence the vadose zone 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. In fine grained soils, capillary action can cause the pores of the soil to be fully saturated above the water table at a pressure less than atmospheric. In such soils, therefore, the unsaturated zone is the upper section of the vadose zone and not identical to it.
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. Passages created in completely water-filled conditions are called phreatic passages and tend to be circular in cross-section