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The effects of environmental change on carbon cycling across the semi-arid west

Meet Christopher Beltz: G.A. Harris Fellowship winner

Increased nitrogen availability has the potential to alter many ecosystem functions—and is doing so already. This is due to the widespread response of net primary productivity (biomass) and soil respiration to increased nitrogen inputs into the biosphere.

Increases in nitrogen inputs are responsible for the acidification of soils, streams, and lakes and can affect forest and grassland productivity. Former G.A. Harris Fellowship winner, Christopher Beltz, a PhD student at Yale University, and his research team are examining two major drivers of carbon cycling: water and nitrogen. They want to understand the degree of limitation by both of these factors in the semi-arid ecosystems of the western United States and if that limitation changes by specific function.

Inspired by a mitigation pilot project

Beltz decided to study the effects of increased nitrogen on biomass after learning about the initiation of a major energy development in a sagebrush steppe system which caused declines in a local mule deer herd. He says, “One hypothesis was that the development significantly reduced available winter range forage and also impacted the use of it as the animals moved more quickly through the noisy environment. They wanted to see if the widespread application of fertilizers would potentially offset the loss of biomass and increase the forage quality. In the end, it was clear that the effect of nitrogen fertilization alone would have minimal to no effect. However we also noticed some variability in the results and that this variability seemed to be related to precipitation.”

Beltz thought that if he could control the water in a system in addition to nitrogen, the results might be more consistent. Thus, Beltz and his research team broadcast nitrogen over the soil at three semi-arid grassland and shrubland/sagebrush sites in Colorado and Wyoming. He says, “The three sites essentially have a similar species list, annual precipitation, and annual temperature. However, temperature increases as you go south, and there are some differences in seasonality. The shrublands in the far north are the driest in the late summer which is typical of shrublands, where you see a large amount of precipitation occurring in the spring with a deficit in the summer. Larger taproots are beneficial in this system because they can access deeper water reservoirs.”

Measuring soil moisture improves understanding

The team used METER weather stations, soil moisture sensors, and data loggers to monitor site conditions (i.e., precipitation, air temperature, soil moisture, and soil temperature) with high temporal resolution. Beltz explains, “We monitored soil moisture to understand whether our treatments were having any effect. We needed to know if the treatments actually altered the soil water conditions. With soil sensors in the ground, we could monitor that. We also monitored precipitation at the site level because of the fine scale spatial heterogeneity of precipitation in these systems. We weren’t confident we could obtain this with interpolation or modeling; we wanted site-specific values.”

Beltz uses this and other data to understand the interactive effects of nitrogen and water and also changes in water and nitrogen concentrations. He says, “We do a classic full-factorial manipulation outdoors. We perform the exact same manipulations with the same timing at each site. We measure a whole suite of variables that range from ecosystem structure to ecosystem function. This includes soil respiration, plant community, soil microbial communities (fungal and bacterial) using next-generation sequencing. We look at pools of soil carbon, and we do some fractionation so we can get at more labile and recalcitrant carbon compounds.”

Beltz says that monitoring soil moisture at multiple depths is important. “Our soil samples come from the same depths as the sensors so we can differentiate depth when we look at changes in bacterial or fungal composition. We then try to tie that to temperature and moisture. In 2018, we added an additional set of soil moisture sensors in our water treatment so we could start to quantify the effect in the soil depth that those water treatments were having. This helped explain a lot of what we were seeing.”

Nitrogen or water: which is the driver?

Beltz says the analyses are ongoing, but what they’ve learned so far is that an application of water equivalent to 12 millimeters precipitation penetrates to 10 centimeters of depth, and the effect of that application lasts three to seven days at all of their sites. He says, “Last year, we had an unseasonably large amount of precipitation at our northerly site. So for most of the season, the water treatments and the controls were identical in terms of water availability. That was a very helpful context for us because we started to see things that did not match the expected patterns.”

Looking at the big picture, he adds, “What’s come out of this is not what anybody expected. One major finding, at least in the initial analyses at two of our sites, is that it’s really the combined treatment of increased nitrogen and water that has the effect. This is not necessarily surprising in some ways, however it is the widespread lack of response of any other treatment combination that is extremely interesting.”

What it all means

Beltz sums up the implications of his research like this: “We know water availability and precipitation will shift globally due to climate change, as well as nitrogen deposition and availability. Our research is trying to tease apart the effects of two factors, at least within the western United States, that we know are likely to cause changes to the structure and function of dryland ecosystems. As we start to look at carbon balance or shifts in function or species competition of plant communities, we are finding out that it’s the combined effect of increased nitrogen and water that will cause a more major change as opposed to just one or the other. It’s important that we integrate that combination into models that often do not account for both of these factors.”

Beltz says in the future he’s interested in continuing his work in the carbon/nitrogen cycle world, and he wants to look at integrating nitrogen and water into carbon balance modeling efforts.

You can read more about the first study mentioned, regarding nitrogen fertilization in the sagebrush steppe, which was published in PloS ONE: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0206563

Find out about his research here: christopherbeltz.com or via Twitter @BeltzEcology

Now accepting applications: 2019 G. A. Harris Fellowship

The Grant A. Harris Fellowship provides $60,000 worth of METER research instrumentation (six $10,000 awards) to graduate students studying any aspect of agricultural, environmental, or geotechnical science.

Apply now

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Learn more about measuring soil moisture. Download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture“.

To understand how soil moisture and soil water potential work together, download “The researcher’s complete guide to water potential.”

Data deep dive: why am I seeing diurnal changes in soil moisture?

In the video below, METER soil scientist Dr. Colin Campbell discusses an often-misdiagnosed water content signal that looks like typical diurnal temperature cycling but is actually due to a phenomenon called hydraulic redistribution. He shows how easily these patterns can be seen in ZENTRA Cloud data management software.

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Learn more

Learn more about measuring soil moisture. Download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture“.

To understand how soil moisture and soil water potential work together, download “The researcher’s complete guide to water potential.”

Video transcript

Hello, my name is Colin Campbell. I’m a research scientist here at METER Group. And today we’re going to be digging into some water content data that I collected over the last summer. This is a field that’s planted in spring wheat, it’s about 700 meters across. And we’ve set up six measurement sites. At each one of these sites, we’re making several measurements, but the ones we’re going to talk about today are just water content. And while we’ve installed water content sensors at 15, 45, and 65 centimeters, we’re just going to focus on the 65-centimeter water content sensors. These sensors are the METER TEROS 12 soil moisture sensors, so they also measure electrical conductivity and temperature, and we’re going to look at temperature as well because that figures into this discussion. 

So this field was planted in April of 2019. And not a lot interesting goes on at the 65-centimeter depth through April, May, and June. But as we get into July, the wheat is reaching maturity, and they essentially are going to cut off the irrigation water here on July 22. So up to July 22, there’s really not a lot of movement in the water content. One of the sites decreases a little bit, but each line is flat. What I noticed as I was looking at this particular graph is after this long period of very flat data, after June 22 when the irrigation was cut off, we start to see some movement in the water content at this depth Not only is there movement down, but there’s a daily movement of the actual water content signals, all but this top light green line. And it made me wonder, what’s going on? 

Diurnal water content fluctuations are not always due to temperature.

Initially, whenever you see a diurnal movement, you suspect that it’s caused by temperature. It’s been said that every sensor is probably a temperature sensor first, and a sensor of whatever we’re really interested in second. In this case, we can look to see what the temperature is doing at that depth. Here’s soil temperature, at 65 centimeters, and even though there’s just a little bobble in the line, the line is almost completely flat. We see the seasonal trends in temperature, but really no diurnal temperature cycling. And this scale is also fairly small. So back to our 65-centimeter water content. If it’s not temperature that’s affecting these lines, then what is it? 

I’ve seen this before in an experiment that I did years ago in a non-irrigated wheat field. We were measuring down at  150 centimeters, and when the water had been used up in the upper levels of the soil profile, the roots of the wheat plant just simply went down to 150 centimeters and started taking water up. So this is what I assume is also happening here. The wheat has extended its roots down to 65 centimeters, since its irrigated wheat. That’s not too deep, but wheat doesn’t necessarily need to get its roots down super deep. And as the wheat accesses that water, we’re seeing these daily drops in water. But then we’re seeing just a slight increase in water. Here on July 28, we’re seeing that water go up slightly. And so why is this happening? We might understand how the water is being taken out of the soil, but why do we see a slight increase in the water content (just a few tenths of a percent)? 

What I think is happening, in this case, is that it’s not temperature, but actually, roots are growing down into this area, and they’re probably growing around the sensor. As we change from day to night, we see a release in the elasticity of the water in the xylem, and maybe just a little bit more water down in the roots as they’re the transpiration pull of the day is lessened and stops overnight. The stomates are closed, and we see just a little bit of water coming back into the roots and possibly into the soil. 

Now there was a big discussion many years ago about whether this was something called hydraulic lift where trees could take up water from deep in the soil profile and essentially give it back to plants near the surface. And although it was a great debate, it was never proven that this actually happened: water being spread from deeper locations to more shallow locations by roots. But this is probably hydraulic redistribution where we just have roots filling with water, and when they are filled, we see a little bit in the water content sensor.

Soil moisture sensors aid forensic science in time-of-death estimates

Extending time of death estimates

Forensic scientists are looking at better, more accurate ways of determining the post-mortem interval, or time of death. When a human body decomposes, microbes and nematodes become abundant in the soil surrounding the body. The types and maturity of these organisms may be a means of determining the time of death, but thus far most studies have focused on short post-mortem time frames.

Scientists look for ways to increase the accuracy of long-term post-mortem interval estimates

That’s why Stacy Taylor, her advisor, Dr. Jennifer DeBruyn, and their research team at the University of Tennessee are using cutting-edge molecular techniques and classical microscopic techniques to try and extend the time frames over which this approach could be used to determine how long it’s been since victims have died. 

Monitoring dramatic soil changes   

Taylor, a winner of the National Institute of Justice Graduate Research Fellowship in STEM, working in conjunction with the UT Anthropology Research Facility, is measuring biological and chemical changes in soil composition brought about by long-term human decomposition. She says, “We are looking at a combination of soil chemistry, microbial ecology, and some of the soil animals, particularly the nematodes, to get an entire food web approach in understanding all of the nutrient cycling that is occurring in these systems. We want to look at the soil chemistry patterns and microbial/nematode succession to see if these cross-inform each other.” 

Taylor explains some of the changes in soil composition that occur during both vertebrate and invertebrate decomposition, “Basically, any time you have a decomposition event that is not composed of plant litter, it creates what’s called a “hot spot” of nutrient enrichment. Unlike plant litter, which decomposes very slowly, with a vertebrate system you have a tremendous amount of protein and fat. You also have a lot of calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium. And when you put a large load of these things into the soil, you get a huge change in soil organic composition, nutrient availability, and soil moisture. So you’re essentially dealing with massive changes in a very localized soil environment.”

Decomposition also changes the soil water

Taylor and her adviser Dr. Debruyn had the fairly new idea to insert METER soil moisture, temperature and electrical conductivity sensors connected to data loggers into the soil in these hot spots, to see what kind of interesting data would turn up.

The TEROS 12 is an updated version of the sensor Taylor used in her research

She says they’ve been surprised at how informative and eye-opening this has been. She explains, “These hot spots change the ionic strength of the soil water. And that is highly correlated to electrical conductivity, which is measured by the soil moisture sensors. A change in ionic strength potentially impacts the salinity of the soil. Some of those changes have been shown to persist for well over a year, which is what these soil sensors are showing. I take an hourly reading, and the sensors are producing the most amazing data.”  

Taylor says the sensors were inserted into the soil surface, so they could measure the impact the decomposition produced immediately on the upper layer of soil. They took soil cores at 16 centimeters to measure soil pH and EC, and they also used RT-1 air temperature sensors to track accumulated degree days which are based on ambient air temperature and correlate with maggot growth and development rates. 

Identifying time markers

Taylor says that soil changes (in particular EC and temperature) are not just general deviations but show clear stages as decomposition progresses through time, indicating they might be useful as time markers. She explains, “We are tracking a succession of events. These events happen at particular time points and are associated with certain decomposition stages (i.e, bloat, active decay, advanced decay, or skeletonized remains). For example, you might see traces of increased electrical conductivity followed by a drop. If that drop happens at the same stage of decomposition, over and over, then you know that you have a time marker. And when you gradually accumulate some of these time markers, that can potentially inform some of the existing estimates of how long something has been there.”

Taylor’s study is about bringing better justice and more peace to the families of crime victims.

What’s the future?

Taylor says the implications of this study will help nail down many of the intrinsic controls on the decomposition process. And once they understand that, they’ll have a better idea how to employ these estimates of post mortem interval, which will bring better justice and more peace to the families of crime victims. About the future of the research, she says, “This is the kind of study that you want to replicate at other human decomposition facilities that vary by altitudes, weather, soils, and more. You need to be able to look at a variety of environments just to see what happens.”

You can read more about Stacy’s project here.

To learn more about measuring soil moisture, download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture“.

To understand how soil moisture and soil water potential work together, download “The researcher’s complete guide to water potential.”

Chalk Talk: Intensive vs. Extensive Variables

Learn the difference between intensive and extensive variables and how they relate to soil water potential vs. soil water content in our new Chalk Talk whiteboard series. In this video series, Dr. Colin S. Campbell teaches basic principles of environmental biophysics and how they relate to measuring different parameters of the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum.

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Learn more

To learn more about measuring water potential vs. water content read: Why soil moisture sensors can’t tell you everything.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Video transcript

Hello, my name is Colin Campbell. I’m a senior research scientist here at METER group. And I teach a class on environmental biophysics. Today I wanted to talk about something we teach in the class: the difference between extensive and intensive variables. I’d like to do this with the goal of relating it to the difference between volumetric water content and water potential. 

Here, I have a picture of a ship moving through the ice and some metal that’s been heated in a furnace. I think we would agree the ship has the highest amount of heat in it compared to this very small piece of metal. And if we placed that piece of metal onto the outside of the ship, despite the fact that there is more heat in the metal, we know the heat would not move from the high amount of heat (ship) to the low amount of heat (metal). It would actually move from the highest temperature to the lowest temperature. Why is that?

The reason is that heat moves because of temperature and not because of heat content or the amount of heat in something. Heat content defines an amount or an extent. And we generally term something that defines an extent or an amount as an extensive variable.An extensive variable depends broadly on the size of something or how much of something there is. 

This differs for temperature. Temperature doesn’t depend on size. The temperature could be the same in a very small room or a very large room, but the amount of heat or heat content in those rooms would be quite different. When we describe temperature, we talk about intensity, which is why we call these types of variables intensive variables. This is because they don’t depend on size or amount. 

Let’s talk about another example. Here’s your heating bill. Maybe it’s natural gas. What you’re paying for is the amount of heat you put into the house. But the question is, are you comfortable in the house? And from this bill, we can’t tell. Maybe you put in 200 heat units, whatever those might be. We can’t tell if that’s comfortable because we don’t know the size of the house or the type of insulation. All those things would influence whether you were comfortable. 

Alternatively, if the temperature is 71 F that’s quite comfortable. That’s equivalent to about 22 degrees Celsius. So the intensive variable, temperature, is different than the extensive variable, heat content, that tells us how much heat we put in. And that’s important because at the end of the day, that leads to cost. 

On this side, we don’t know how much we paid to keep it at 22 C because heat content doesn’t tell us anything about that. But the intensive variable temperature does tell us something about comfort. So both of these variables are critical to really understanding something about our comfort in the house. 

Now let’s talk about the natural environment. Specifically, we’re going to talk about soils. We’ll start with the extensive variable. When we talk about water in soil, the extensive variable is, of course, water content. Water content defines the amount of water. Why would we care about water content? Well, for irrigation or a water balance.

The intensive variable is called water potential. What does water potential tell us? It tells us if soil water is available and also predicts water movement. If this soil had a water content of 25% VWC and another soil was at 20% VWC, would the water move from the higher water content to the lower water content? Well, that would be like our example of the ship and the heated piece of metal. We don’t know if it would move. It may move. And if the soil on either side was exactly the same, we might presume that it would move from the higher water content to the lower water content, but we actually don’t know. Because the water content is an extensive variable, it only tells us how much there is. It won’t tell us if it will move. 

Now, if we knew that this soil water potential was -20 kPa and this soil water potential over here was -15 kPa, we would know something about where the water would move, and it would do something different than we might think. It would move from the higher water potential to the lower water potential against the gradient in water content, which is pretty interesting but nonetheless true. Water always moves from the highest water potential to the lowest water potential.

This helps us understand these variables in terms of plant comfort. We talked about the temperature being related to human comfort. We know at what temperatures we are most comfortable. With plants, we know exactly the same thing, and we always turn to the intensive variable, water potential, to define plant comfort.

For example, if we have an absolute scale like water potential for a particular plant, let’s say -15 kPa is the upper level for plant comfort, and -100 kPa is the lower level of comfort, we could keep our water potential in this range. And the plant would be happy all the time. Just like if we kept our temperature between 21 and 23 Celsius, that would be comfortable for humans. But of course, we humans are different. Some people think that temperature is warm, and some think it’s cold. And it’s the same for plants. So this isn’t a hard and fast rule. But we can’t say the same thing with water content. There’s no scale where we can say at 15% water content up to 25% water content you’ll have a happy plant That’s not true.If we know something about the soil, we can infer it. But soil is unique. And we’d have to derive this relationship between the water content and the water potential to know that. 

So why would we ever think about using water content when we measure water in the soil? One reason is it’s the most familiar to people. And it’s the simplest to understand. It’s easy to understand an amount. But more importantly, when we talk about things like how much we’re going to irrigate, we might need to put on 10 millimeters of water to make the plants happy. And we’d need to measure that. Also if we want to know the fate of the water in the system, how much precipitation and irrigation we put on versus how much is moving down through the soil into the groundwater, that also relates to an amount.  

But when we want to understand more about plant happiness or how water moves, it’s going to be this intensive variable, water potential that makes the biggest difference. And so with that, I’ll close. I’d love for you to go check out our website www.metergroup.com to learn a little bit more about these measurements in our knowledge base. And you’re also welcome to email me about this at colin.campbell@meter group.com.

Soil moisture: ECH20 vs. TEROS, which is better?

See how the new TEROS soil moisture sensor line compares with METER’s trusted ECH20 sensor line.

TEROS 12 soil moisture sensor

Volumetric water content—defined

To evaluate the performance of any water content sensor, you need to first understand its technology. In order to do this, it’s necessary to understand how volumetric water content (VWC) is measured. Volumetric water content is the volume of water divided by the volume of soil (Equation 1) which gives the percentage of water in a soil sample.

So, for instance, if a volume of soil (Figure 1) was made up the following constituents: 50% soil minerals, 35% water, and 15% air, that soil would have a 35% volumetric water content.

The percentage of water by mass (wm) can be measured directly using the gravimetric method, which involves subtracting the oven-dry soil mass (md) from the mass of moist soil (giving the mass of water, mw) and dividing by md (Equation 2).

The resulting gravimetric water content can be converted to volumetric by multiplying by the dry bulk density of the soil (b) (Equation 3).

Why capacitance technology works

Volumetric water content can also be measured indirectly: meaning a parameter related to VWC is measured, and a calibration is used to convert that amount to VWC. All METER soil moisture sensors use an indirect method called capacitance technology. In simple terms, capacitance technology uses two metal electrodes (probes or needles) to measure the charge-storing capacity (or apparent dielectric permittivity) of whatever is between them.

Table 1 illustrates that every common soil constituent has a different charge-storing capacity. In a soil, the volume of most of these constituents will stay constant over time, but the volume of air and water will fluctuate.

Since air stores almost no charge and water stores a large charge, it is possible to measure the change in the charge-storing ability of a soil and relate it to the amount of water (or VWC) in that soil. (For a more detailed explanation of capacitance technology watch our Soil Moisture: methods/applications webinar.

Capacitance today is highly accurate

When capacitance technology was first used to measure soil moisture in the 1970s, scientists soon realized that how quickly the electromagnetic field was charged and discharged was critical to success. Low frequencies led to large soil salinity effects on the readings. Over time, this new understanding, combined with advances in the speed of electronics, enabled the original capacitance approach to be adjusted for success. Modern capacitance sensors, such as METER sensors, use high frequencies (70 MHz) to minimize effects of soil salinity on readings.

The circuitry in capacitance sensors can be designed to resolve extremely small changes in volumetric water content, so much so, that NASA used METER’s capacitance technology to measure water content on Mars. Capacitance soil moisture sensors are easy to install and tend to have low power requirements. They may last for years in the field powered by a small battery pack in a data logger.   

TEROS and ECH20: same trusted technology

Both TEROS and ECH20 soil moisture sensors use the same trusted, high-frequency (70 MHz) capacitance technology that is published in thousands of peer-reviewed papers. Figure 3 shows the calibration data for the ECH20 5TE and TEROS 12.

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Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Soil Moisture 301—Hydraulic Conductivity Why you need it. How to measure it.

New Live Webinar

Hydraulic conductivity, or the ability of a soil to transmit water, is critical to understanding the complete water balance.

Soil hydraulic conductivity impacts almost every soil application.

In fact, if you’re trying to model the fate of water in your system and simply estimating parameters like conductivity, you could get orders of magnitude errors in your projections. It would be like searching in the dark for a moving target. If you want to understand how water will move across and within your soil system, you need to understand hydraulic conductivity because it governs water flow.

Get the complete soil picture

Hydraulic conductivity impacts almost every soil application: crop production, irrigation, drainage, hydrology in both urban and native lands, landfill performance, stormwater system design, aquifer recharge, runoff during flooding, soil erosion, climate models, and even soil health. In this 20-minute webinar, METER research scientist, Leo Rivera discusses how to better understand water movement through soil. Discover:

  • Saturated and unsaturated hydraulic conductivity—What are they?
  • Why you need to measure hydraulic conductivity
  • Measurement methods for the lab and the field
  • What hydraulic conductivity can tell you about the fate of water in your system

Date: August 20, 2019 at 9:00 am – 10:00 am Pacific Time

See the live webinar

REGISTER

Can’t wait for the webinar? See a comparison of common measurement methods, and decide which soil hydraulic conductivity method is right for your application. Read the article.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Freshwater shrimp grown in Korean rice paddy boost grower income

In South Korea, falling rice prices threaten the livelihood of many rice growers. Recently our Korean reps told us about an experiment performed in Jinju city, Gyeongsangnam-do, South Korea, by GNARES (Gyeongsangnam-do Agricultural Research & Extension Services) to increase grower income through simultaneous freshwater shrimp, lotus plant, and rice cultivation in a paddy field.

RT-1 water temperature sensors were installed along with METER data loggers to monitor the water temperature, ensuring it was optimal for shrimp growth. Through this experiment, GNARES found that environmental conditions were good for cultivating freshwater shrimp in this area. 

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Engineers Without Borders alleviates Panamanian village water security issues

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) at Washington State University in Pullman, WA has partnered with a small indigenous village located in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé region of Panama. The relationship between this village and EWB at WSU began in 2016 when WSU alumna Destry Seiler began living in the village as a Peace Corps volunteer hoping to help solve the community’s water security needs.

A view of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé taken from the village in Panama.

During the rainy season in this village, approximately 20 households have access to water through a two-inch PVC pipe that operates by gravity. It runs approximately 1.5 kilometers through the jungle from a spring source higher in the mountain to small hose spickets located close to the homes on the distribution line. The other ~80 households do not have access to the distribution line and walk to the closest river or creek up to five times a day to find water. However, during the dry season, most spring sources dry up, leaving all households in the community to walk to the diminished supply of rivers to find their water.

A view of the water line currently serving ~20 homes in the village during the rainy season.

The village initially requested assistance from the Peace Corps in order to find a year-round source of clean water. But, after living in the village for 1.5 years, Ms. Seiler could not locate spring sources that both survived through the dry season and could also reach the homes in need through a gravity fed system.

Then Ms. Seiler began thinking of groundwater as a possible new water source for the community. Unfortunately, groundwater data for the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé was not available from the local government agency. So she decided to reach out to WSU professor, Dr. Karl Olsen, to ask for assistance with a groundwater research project, and the EWB club was formed.

The club visited the village for the first time along with Ms. Seiler and faculty mentor Dr. Karl Olsen in August 2018 to do an initial survey of water use and needs, as well as to create a first-ever map of the area. EWB will return to Panama this June 2019 to implement a solar-powered water pump requested by a section of the community to deliver water from a spring source to approximately 20 homes on the nearest ridgeline. The club will also install latrines in a nearby community. They will continue the groundwater survey of the area through more extensive mapping and perform a more advanced analysis with the support of a local hydrologic company.

EWB members and WSU students Patrick Roubicaud, Kristy Watson, Destry Seiler, Perri Piller, Rene McMinn, and Kevin Allen during their visit to Panama, August 2018.

The team will use a METER-donated ATMOS 41 weather station along with a ZL6 data logger and ZENTRA Cloud software to assist in the data collection necessary to begin mapping groundwater in the area. The weather station will record precipitation, solar radiation, vapor pressure, temperature, wind, and relative humidity data that will enable EWB to begin to quantify environmental conditions and available water supply. When combined with streamflow data from rivers in the area, groundwater availability can also begin to be estimated. Because of ZENTRA Cloud, EWB will be able to view this information near-real time as well as share it with the village to help guide their design decisions. EWB plans to install the ATMOS 41 at a nearby village school to ensure weather station security and to provide an opportunity for local students to learn about their surrounding environment in a way they have not been able to do before.

To learn more about the Panamanian village or the work EWB from WSU is doing, visit ewb.wsu.edu.

See performance data for the ATMOS 41 weather station.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Soil Moisture 101: Need-to-Know Basics

Harness the power of soil moisture

Researchers measure evapotranspiration and precipitation to understand the fate of water—how much moisture is deposited, used, and leaving the system. But if you only measure withdrawals and deposits, you’re missing out on water that is (or is not) available in the soil moisture savings account. Soil moisture is a powerful tool you can use to predict how much water is available to plants, if water will move, and where it’s going to go.

Soil moisture 101 explores soil water content vs. soil water potential

What you need to know

Soil moisture is more than just knowing the amount of water in soil. Learn basic principles you need to know before deciding how to measure it. In this 20-minute webinar, discover:

  • Why soil moisture is more than just an amount
  • Water content: what it is, how it’s measured, and why you need it
  • Water potential: what it is, how it’s different from water content, and why you need it
  • Whether you should use soil moisture sensors, water potential sensors, or both
  • Which sensors measure each type of parameter

Watch the webinar

Soil moisture 201 coming soon

Sign up to attend the live webinar:  Soil Moisture 201: Moisture Release Curves—Revealed June 11, at 9am PST.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Why mesonets make weather prediction more accurate

The staggering cost of Montana’s “flash drought”

Some people figured it was climate change. One statistician said it was a part of a cyclical trend for poor crop years. Whatever the cause, the 2017 flash drought that parched the entire state of Montana and most of South Dakota, severely impacted the profitability of ranchers and farmers. In western Montana, fires burned some of the largest acreages in recent history. It resulted in one of the biggest wildfire incident reports (over one-million acres) and caused virtually 100% crop loss in northeastern Montana. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture estimated the crop loss to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and one question was on everybody’s mind—why did no one see it coming?

Figure 1. Montana drought conditions August 2017 (Source: Montana State Library website: https://mslservices.mt.gov/Geographic_Information/Maps/drought/)

Getting the right weather data

The 2017 Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation spring drought report indicated plenty of water: “By the end of the month, almost all drought concern was removed from the state, with the exception of Wibaux and Fallon Counties….As of May 9, 2017, Montana was 98.45% drought free.” But in late May, an abrupt shift in weather conditions led to one of the hottest, driest summers on record.

The problem, says Kevin Hyde, Montana State Mesonet Coordinator, lies not only in the need for more weather data but in obtaining the right kind of data. He says, “One of the reasons drought was missed was because we’re still thinking you measure drought by snowpack and how much water is in the river, which is really great if you’ve got water rights. But we’ve got a lot of dryland out there.”

In addition to weather monitoring, Hyde is a big proponent of adding soil moisture and NDVI measurements to each of the Montana Mesonet stations he oversees. He says, “The conventional weather station only measures atmospheric conditions. But ultimately, to make any decisions, we’ve got to know not just how much water comes into the system, but how much goes into the soil. And even that’s not enough…because what we really need to know is how the water situation is going to affect plants.”

Hyde says more data are needed to warn growers and ranchers about upcoming weather risks. He points to the fact that increasing evapotranspiration got missed leading up to the summer of 2017. “We realized that if we were looking carefully at reference ET, we might have seen it about a month earlier. What would people have done? They would have changed their calf purchases. They would have figured out what kind of forage they needed to buy. These are the types of decisions people can make if they know the information sooner.”

Was the drought over? Soil moisture illuminates the bigger picture

Heavy rains came mid-September of 2017, which led some people to believe the drought was over. However, changes in soil moisture told a different story. Very little of the rain made it into the soil. “At the Havre, MT station you can see we had some heavy precipitation events. Then we had early October snows. So people expected good soil water recharge. But at the end of the day, we didn’t get it. On Sept.15th, soil moisture sensors showed a big soil moisture response at the surface but only a marginal response at 8 inches.” The melt of early October snows onto the soil, still damp from the September rain, drained to 20 inches or more. But as the snowmelt dissipated, there was minimal net gain going into the winter.

Figure 2. Soil moisture traces at the Havre, MT weather station

Predictive models need more coverage to be effective

Typically in the U.S., the National Weather Service (a division of NOAA) puts out a network of weather monitoring stations spaced out across the country, and that data gets fed into forward-looking models that help predict the weather. Dr. Doug Cobos, research scientist at METER says, “What people are finding out is that putting in a sparse network of very expensive systems has done really well. It’s been a good thing. But the spatial gaps in those networks are a problem, especially for agriculture producers and ranchers. They need to know what’s happening where they are.”

Hyde agrees, adding that we need better predictive tools that help growers and ranchers make practical decisions based on data rather than guessing. “January 1st is when the decision has to be made—do I buy cows? Do I sell cows? Do I need more pasture? But many predictions start on April 1st. As one rancher puts it, ‘We don’t bother with Las Vegas. We sit around the dining room table at the beginning of the year and put a million dollars on one shot.’”

Mesonets improve spatial distribution

Mesonets present a practical solution for the need to fill in data gaps between large, complex weather stations. The Montana Mesonet currently has 57 stations interspersed throughout the state, and through partnerships with both the public and private sector, they’re adding more stations every year.

Figure 3. Map of MT Mesonet weather stations (source: http://climate.umt.edu/mesonet/)

At each location, the Montana Mesonet team installs METER all-in-one weather stations, soil moisture sensors, NDVI sensors and data loggers that integrate with ZENTRA Cloud: an easy-to-use web software that seamlessly integrates into third-party applications through an API. He says the system enables better spatial distribution and reliability. “When we were deciding on equipment we asked ourselves: What kind of technology should we use? It had to provide high data integrity. It had to be easy to deploy and maintain. And it had to be cost effective. There’s not a lot of people in that sector. METER systems are low profile, they’re affordable, and the reliability is there. I look at some other mesonets, and they cannot afford to build out further because they are relying on large, complex, expensive systems. That’s where the METER system comes into play.”

Figure 4. Montana Mesonet station setup (Photo credit: Kevin Hyde)

Betting on the future

The Mesonet team and its partners are excited to see how their data will mesh with the available predictive tools to be the most useful and practical for growers and ranchers throughout the state, and they realize that there is still much work to do. “It’s not enough just to get the instrumentation out there. The overall crux is: how do we build the information network, and how do we build a relationship with the producers so that we can have an iterative and interactive conversation?” says Hyde. “We know there needs to be an education in how to use and interpret the data. For example: what is NDVI, and what can we learn from it? A lot of what we need to do is translate science into practical terms.” But he adds that it doesn’t need to be perfect. “What the farmers have said to us is, ‘We don’t need exact numbers. We’re gamblers. Give us probability. Teach us what it means, and we’ll make the decision.’”

Find more information on the Montana Mesonet here.

See performance data for the ATMOS 41 weather station.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>