Skip to content

Building a Martian: the University Rover Challenge

One day soon robots will rule the world. Well, maybe. For now, they rule Mars as research and colonization efforts push forward, and for a few days this June they will rule the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah at the University Rover Challenge (URC).

Launched in 2006, the URC has hosted competitions since 2007 and boasts contestants from around the globe, including the United States, Canada, India, Bangladesh, Poland, and Egypt.  Each year, contestants are given point scores based on how quickly they complete a series of tasks and how closely each task conforms to parameters outlined by the competition guidelines.  This year, teams must complete a terrain traverse, a simulated equipment servicing, an astronaut assist, and the retrieval and measurement of a non-contaminated soil sample.

Collaboration and Challenges

Byron Cragg, Science Team Lead for the Titan Rover Team out of California State University, Fullerton, says it’s been an uphill battle. “We’ve had to design the systems we are using to control our rover, retrieve our data, and keep our data organized from the ground up.  We’ve also needed to make our rover robust in case a battery or a motor fails during the competition.” 

It is no easy feat to build a rover for the Utah desert, let alone send instrumentation to Mars. This is why it has taken a multi-disciplinary team to build the physical components, robotic arm, telecommunications, and scientific cache on Titan Rover.  Cragg says his team consists of scientists, computer engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, geologists, chemists, and biologists all working together.

A prototype image of the Titan 1 Rover.

A prototype image of the Titan Rover.

Titan Rover Features

The CSU rover is outfitted with sophisticated features like Leap Motion infrared sensors that allow Titan Rover’s robotic arm to be controlled by a human counterpart moving their arm in free space. When the user moves their arm and hand position, the arm on Titan Rover is given a signal from the command center to move accordingly.

Cragg is responsible for the 3D printed science cache that uses a 3” auger and a capacitance sensor to measure a soil sample’s volumetric water content, temperature, and bulk electrical conductivity. During the competition, the team will also be required to construct a stratigraphic column from HD images transmitted by the rover, as well as measure soil temperature at a depth of 10cm.

“It comes down to designing the pieces to communicate and work together to perform the tasks correctly,” Cragg says about the challenges ahead. “It’s one thing to build the rover,” he adds, “but it’s another to complete the requirements.”

While ambitions of a colonized Mars are on the horizon and research pushes on, like the Titan Rover project, progress will require collaboration and teamwork. In the meantime, good luck to all the Earthlings who will be competing in the Utah desert this June.

Is Average Relative Humidity A Meaningless Measurement? (Part II)

Scientists often misunderstand average relative humidity (see part I).  In fact, it’s not uncommon to encounter average relative humidity being misused in scientific literature.  This week, learn which measurement should be used instead.

green-690846_640 (1)

Humid conditions in a pine forest.

What is Wrong with Average Relative Humidity?

We often use average values to illustrate the behavior of parameters over time.  One of the most common is air temperature, where we effectively graph average half-hourly temperature across a day or daily temperature across a year to show important details about the environment. But, consider what average relative humidity would look like.  

As noted above, a general rule, though not consistent everywhere, is that the temperature at night cools down to the point where the air is saturated and the relative humidity is 100% (1).  During the day, depending on the climate and weather, the saturated vapor pressure may increase roughly two to five times ea and relative humidity would be between 0.2 to 0.5. If we calculated an average for the day, it would most likely be between 0.6 and 0.75, no matter what environment was being measured.  Of course, if it were raining or in the winter with low incoming radiation, this would be higher.  Still, it is easy to see that an average relative humidity does not do much to define meteorological conditions.  

Image: Britannica.com/

The title of this chart is misleading because they were not averaging across the day, but only daily at noon. Image: Britannica.com/

What Should We Use Instead?

The measurement that should be reported is vapor pressure. Not only is it independent of temperature, but it can also be effectively averaged over time to show ecosystem behavior.  However, this value will not be helpful to scientists who are identifying the pull generated by the atmosphere for water vapor in the plant or soil. This quantity is called vapor deficit and is calculated by taking the difference between the saturation vapor pressure and ea.

boy-drinking-from-bottle-738210_640 (1)

We sense water deficit in the atmosphere through our skin.

As humans, we intuitively sense the deficit when we feel that the atmosphere is dry through drying of our lips or our skin.  The same is true for plants. The dry atmosphere will exert a higher pull on the water, pulling it out through the leaves.  The higher the difference between the vapor pressure and the saturation vapor pressure, the more pull for water. Although sometimes reported in literature, the most common use for vapor pressure is as a standard input to evapotranspiration models like FAO56 or Penman-Monteith.

Is Average Relative Humidity A Meaningless Measurement?

Relative humidity is one of the most widely reported weather parameters and is familiar to most people.

grass-960013_640

Scientists sometimes misunderstand relative humidity.

Still, it is not uncommon to encounter it being misused.  Here are two examples:  

  1. My sister recently stated that her son was experiencing 45℃ and 100% humidity while walking around during the day in the Philippines.
  2. In scientific literature, I often find figures displaying daily average relative humidity over a period of weeks or months.  

Both of these examples show a misunderstanding of what relative humidity is and how it can be used.

What is relative humidity?

Relative humidity (hr) is the ratio of the vapor pressure (ea) in the air over how much vapor pressure there could be if the air were saturated at that air temperature (saturated vapor pressure, es(Ta)).

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 7.55.24 PM

While vapor pressure is a reasonably conservative quantity, meaning it doesn’t change drastically with time (i.e.hours), es(Ta) is solely tied to temperature, shown by the empirical Tetens equation:

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 8.10.17 PM

where Ta is air temperature, and b =17.502 and c = 240.97℃ (constants).  As the equation shows, saturated vapor pressure is only a function of temperature, so relative humidity in natural conditions will simply show a sinusoidal pattern that is inverse to air temperature.  

worker-646443_640

When humidity is higher, the vapor concentration difference is smaller so we lose less water, reducing our ability to cool.

Why do we estimate it poorly?

When temperatures are elevated above our comfort zone, we begin to feel hot. Our bodies, which are adept at keeping us cool, evaporate water from our skin to to return us to a comfortable skin temperature.  When humidity is higher, the vapor concentration difference is smaller so we lose less water, thus reducing our ability to cool.  In an attempt to balance the humidity, our body moistens the skin surface with sweat, leaving us feeling damp and sticky. This makes us feel like the air is nearly saturated, but in reality, the higher humidity has simply limited our ability to cool ourselves.

It is a relatively simple thing to convince ourselves that daytime humidities are never 100% unless it’s raining. We know that daytime temperatures are almost always higher than nighttime, due to solar radiation. And, we are familiar with dew that forms on surfaces as night time temperatures cool to the point that they begin to condense water out of the air (dew point temperature). If we assume that the vapor pressure of the air (ea) is the same as the saturation vapor pressure when the dew began to form (nighttime low temperature), then any air temperature throughout the day (Ta, which we assume would be higher) generates a saturation vapor pressure (es(Ta)) that is higher than ea and thus, relative humidity would be less than 1.

So, what about my nephew in the Philippines? Right now, a typical low temperature is 24℃ with a high of 34℃ (when it’s not raining).  Under that scenario, the relative humidity, although it would feel quite high, would only be around 56% at midday.

Next Week: Learn what’s wrong with using average relative humidity in scientific papers and what measurement should be used instead.

Does Early Planting Increase Risk to Winter Canola?

Many dryland winter canola growers assume that if they plant earlier, they will establish a stronger plant, but Washington State University researcher Megan Reese recently found that this was not the case.  She and her team discovered that planting earlier increases risk to the plant, as more water is used, and the reduced amount of water then left after the winter season limits spring regrowth. Megan’s findings could be valuable as water is the most yield-limiting factor in eastern Washington state’s wheat dominated dryland systems, where winter canola has newly emerged as a rotational crop.

Winter canola is cold hardy, but it’s not as resilient as wheat.

Winter canola is cold hardy, but it’s not as resilient as wheat.

Early Planting:

Winter canola is cold hardy, but it’s not as resilient as wheat.  It’s planted in August, much earlier than winter wheat, which is planted in the late fall.  In order to survive, winter canola has to establish a hardy taproot system so that plants have reserves to survive the winter. Megan says, “Opinions vary, but anecdotally, a dinner plate sized plant can survive winter fairly well, so that’s why winter canola is planted in August . However, because establishment and germination can be an issue, we decided to try planting in June at Ritzville, Washington, thinking the soil would be more moist and have a cooler seedbed.  However, the early planting date had a negative effect on winter survival. Not one of the early plants survived.  We found the plants that started earlier used a lot more water, and consequently, the winter rains weren’t enough to refill the soil profile.  Excessive growth and bolting also contributed to low survivorship.”

Methods and Moisture Release Curves:

Megan monitored soil water in the profile several different ways.  At one location she used a neutron probe and hand-sampled gravimetric soil moisture in the top 30 cm of the profile, and in other locations, she was limited to  hand samples.  Then she combined those measurements with local weather stations to provide the crop water balance for the canola.  Using these data, she was able to determine soil water use as indicated by the water content change through the growing season and calculate the depletion of soil water.  

canola-837818_640

Anecdotally, a dinner plate sized plant can survive winter fairly well.

Megan also took soil samples into the lab from each depth increment at every site and used a chilled mirror hygrometer to construct a moisture release curve.  This helped her to define the apparent permanent wilting point at -1.5 MPa.  She says, “I was able to then see how efficient canola was at extracting available water, and I could look at available water instead of total water contents, which was more useful in terms of plant accessible moisture in the soil profile . It allowed me a consistent platform to compare actual water amounts across sites with differing soil types.  At one site, 12.5% of the water was unavailable, but in the sandier soils at another site, it was 4%.  So there were significant differences in permanent wilting point.”

Water and Physiological Challenges Affect Winter Survival:

Megan found that the June planted canola used every milliliter of available water in the soil profile by late October/early November, but August planted canola still had some water above wilting left in the profile over the winter, which helped the plants in the spring.  She says, “It was a milder winter, so we didn’t get the usual amount of snow and rain, which probably played a role, but we did not see the profile refilled in the June planted canola.  In addition, those June plants were purple and wilted by November, so water stress could have hurt the plants in terms of its defenses. However, I think a larger issue was that they grew so large (the crowns actually elongated and bolted so they weren’t close to the soil) they were more susceptible to the harsh temperatures, whereas the August planted canola were much smaller and their crowns stayed right on the soil surface.”  These findings are based on only one year of data, and Megan notes that early plantings have worked well in the milder climate of Pendleton, OR.

What Does it Mean for Farmers?

Megan says, “We were able to surprise a lot of farmers by showing that canola roots access water down to 1.5 to 1.7 m in the fall; it was hard to believe that a winter crop would do that. Also, in my second year’s data, we followed water use all the way through harvest, so we were able to show how much yield we gained for every millimeter of water used, and farmers liked hearing that number as well.  I think it’s useful information that incorporates biophysics principles and answers some questions that these new canola producers are interested in.  I have three locations this season that we are currently following to give farmers a further idea of what the water-use looks like, when canola uses that water, and from where in the soil profile.  Hopefully this research will help them manage their rotations and look at the possibility of adopting canola.”

 

Tensiometers:  Micro-sized

A strand of a spider’s web is 5 micrometers in width. Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) devices range in size from 20 micrometers to one millimeter. That’s the incredibly small size of the components used in the tensiometer being developed by PhD candidate, Michael Santiago, and his collaborators, professors Abraham Stroock and Alan Lakso  at Cornell University.

MEMS devices can be as small in width as 4 strands of a spider's web.

MEMS devices can be as small in width as 4 strands of a spider’s web.

The engineer/research team is using MEMS technology to develop a  miniature tensiometer (microtensiometer) that has a 100 times larger range  than existing tensiometers, is stable for months, communicates digitally, and can be embedded into plant stems to directly measure plant water potential.

Existing Tensiometer Limitations:

Water potential is the best measure of a plant’s hydration relative to growth and product yield. Unfortunately, directly measuring water potential in plant tissue is only possible through labor-intensive, destructive methods such as the leaf pressure bomb and stem psychrometer. A common alternative is to use ‘set-and-forget’ soil tensiometers to measure soil water potential as a proxy for plant water potential, but this method is unreliable for plants with high hydraulic resistance (vines and woody species), where plant water potential is often much less than the water potential in soil. Although soil tensiometers are very accurate and simple to use, they can be large and bulky, and cavitate as soils dry.

Prototype microtensiometer made with MEMS components.

Prototype microtensiometer made with MEMS components.

Solution:

The Cornell University research team wants to improve the design of the tensiometer so it can be used in the field for applications such as continuously monitoring and controlling plant water potential in vineyards to consistently produce high-quality wine grapes with an exact flavor/aroma profile.  Santiago says, “We’ve basically miniaturized a tensiometer using microchip technology to the point where it’s this tiny chip inside a wafer. Because of the way we fabricated it, we are hoping to make it an embeddable tensiometer that can go in anywhere and measure tension down to about -100 bars (-10 MPa).”

Developing and Calibrating

Santiago is using a chilled mirror hygrometer to produce solutions of specific water potential to test, calibrate, and characterize the microtensiometer.  He comments, “We’ve been testing it in osmotic solutions. We use the water potential meter for calibrating a solution of PEG (polyethylene glycol), and then we measure it with the tensiometer.”

One hurdle the team has to overcome is finding a membrane that keeps small molecules and ions out of the tensiometer pores : these pollute the water inside the tensiometer and cause measurement errors. Santiago explains,Our solution right now is to test in solutions of large molecules, such as PEG of 1400 molecular weight. The tensiometer pores are about 3-4 nanometers, extremely small, but small molecules, such as sugars and salts, can still get through. It’s not a problem for the short term because we are directly submerging into solutions of just water and large molecules, but our goal is to go into the environment and insert the tensiometer into soils and plant stems where small molecules are ubiquitous, so we’ll have to find a membrane that works and can handle field testing.”

The team has been experimenting with materials such as Gore-Tex and reverse osmosis membranes [M5]  [M6] hoping to find a membrane that allows water through and keeps ions out, but does not slow the measurement.

Researchers want be able to insert the device directly into plant xylem.

Researchers want be able to insert the device directly into plant xylem.

What’s Next?

Santiago says the calibrations have worked well. Now the challenge will be putting the tensiometer into different environments such as soil, concrete, and plants. For example, they want be able to insert the device directly into plant xylem, which will require a seal so water is not exiting the system.  And that’s not the only complication. Santiago explains, “We are getting ready to do some testing in soils. The challenge will be getting good data because soil can be really heterogeneous, and we have this sensor with a much larger range than the usual tensiometer. So what do we compare it with? That’s going to be a bit of a challenge.” Santiago says the next few months will be spent getting into some different materials and obtaining some initial publishable data.

Climate Change, Genetics and the Future World

Climate change scientists face a particular challenge— how to simulate climate change without contributing to it. Paul Heinrich, a Research Informatics Officer associated with the Southwest Experimental Garden Array (SEGA) remembers looking at the numbers for a DOE project that would have used fossil fuel to measure forests’ response to temperature change. “It would have been very, very expensive in fossils fuels to heat a hectare of forest,” he says.

The alternative is, “to use elevation change as a surrogate for climate change so we could do climate change manipulations without the large energy costs.”

Using elevation change as a surrogate for climate change.

An overview of the SEGA sites using elevation change as a surrogate for climate change. For a more information on these sites visit http://www.sega.nau.edu/. Photo credit Paul Heinrich

By monitoring organisms across a temperature gradient it is possible to identify genetic variation and traits within a species that could contribute to a species survival under projected future climates.

Control and Monitoring Infrastructure

SEGA is an infrastructure project started in 2012 after researchers at Northern Arizona University’s Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research were awarded a $2.8 million dollar NSF grant with a $1 million match from NAU. Consisting of ten fenced garden sites for genetics-based climate change research, SEGA is set on an elevation gradient from 4000 to 9000 feet in the Southwestern United States. Each SEGA site has an elaborate data collection and control system with meteorological stations and site-specific weather information. Custom engineered Wireless Sensing Actuating and Relay Nodes (WiSARDs) send data packets to a hub which then send the data back to a centralized server.

Because there is inherent moisture content variability from site to site, volumetric water content and soil water potential sensors have been installed to monitor and maintain moisture levels. If there is a change in soil moisture at one site, soil sensors will detect the difference. Software on the server notes the difference and sends a signal to the other sites, turning on irrigation until the soil moisture matches across sites.

SEGACINewv5

An illustration of SEGA’s cyber infrastructure and data management system. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

Having such an elaborate infrastructure creates an opportunity for researchers looking to conduct climate change research. By offering access to the pre-permitted SEGA sites, the hope is that research will generate much needed data for climate projections and land management decisions.

When asked if the data stream was overwhelming to manage Heinrich said, “Well, not yet. We are just getting started. The system is designed for what SEGA is expected to look like in ten years, where we expect to have 50 billion data points.”

Research Considerations

Climate change projections show temperatures increasing rapidly over the next 50 to 100 years, bringing drought with it. The impact of these changes will be dramatic. Temperature and drought tolerant species will survive, those that are not will die, drastically changing the landscape in areas that are currently water-stressed. Pests like the pine beetle and invasive species like cheatgrass will do well in a drier environment where water-stressed natural species will not be able to compete.

SoapCreekfromAbove

Soap Creek, AZ from above. With climate change projections it is likely that more land will become marginal. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

“Foundational species,” or species that have a disproportional impact on the ecosystem, are the primary focus of the research efforts at SEGA sites. These are the species that drive productivity, herbivore habitat and carbon fixation in the ecosystem. Unlike forests in other parts of the United States, forests in the Southwest can be dominated by one or two species, which makes potential research subjects easier to identify.

Genetic Variance

Amy Whipple, an Assistant Professor in Biology and the Director of the Merriam-Powell Research Station who oversees the day-to-day activities at SEGA, has been conducting some of her own research at the garden sites. Whipple has studied pinyon pine, Southwestern white pine, and has a proposal to study cottonwood in process.

Whipple says that models currently suggest that pinyon pine will be gone from Arizona within the next 50 years, adding that the models do not take into account possibilities for evolution, or genetic variance that might help the pinyon survive. So her research is largely asking, will trees from hotter, drier locations have a better chance of surviving climate change? “We’re trying to do that with a number of different species to look for ways to mitigate the effects of climate change in the Southwest.”

Pinyon_2015032600

Researchers documenting a pinyon pine. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

In some of her research on pinyon pine, it was discovered that four different species were grouped morphologically and geographically from southern Arizona to Central Mexico. While this suggests that the divergence of species has occurred, it also suggests a low migration rate for these tree species. Migration rates of drought and temperature tolerant species is an important consideration when modeling for a future climate. If the migration of genetically adapted species cannot keep up with climate, the land could become marginal as a foundational species dies off.

Climate Change Predictions and Considerations

In the Southwest there are entire forests that could become grassland in 50 years because the genetic characteristics of the foundational species currently in those regions will not adapt to higher temperatures and drought-stress. But what does this mean from a land-management perspective?

pine-1232978_1920

Ponderosa pine trees, a foundational species in some area of the Southwestern United States.

Environmental conservationists maintain that we should protect the unique species that are in a place, and that  introducing other organisms or genetic material would be an ethical violation. Environmental interventionists make the argument that climate change has been caused by humans, so we have lost the option of remaining bystanders.

Research, Land Management and Policy

Paul Heinrich says that the route we take to manage the land will depend on our end goals. “Places that have trees now, if you want them to have trees 50 years from now, you are going to have to do something about it. The trees that are on the landscape right now are locally adapted to the past climate. They are not necessarily adapted to the future climate. They are probably maladapted to the future climate.”

To be clear, SEGA’s goal is not to promote or implement assisted migration. Instead, Amy Whipple says, SEGA can test what the effects of assisted migration might be. “In a smaller experimental context we’re asking ‘how will these plants do if we move them around? What will happen to them if we don’t move them around?’” The goal is to provide decision makers with the information they need to make informed decisions about how to manage the land.

Arb_Meadow_2016030801

The Arboretum Meadow in Flagstaff, AZ. Home of one of the SEGA research sites. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

Whipple’s own view is that we may no longer have the option of doing nothing. “Unless major changes are made for the carbon balance of the planet, keeping things the same is not a viable option… Managing for a static past condition is not viable anymore.”

Remaining Questions

Both Heinrich and Whipple acknowledge that these are inherently difficult questions. Ultimately the public and land managers must make these decisions. In the meantime, data from SEGA research may help insure better predictions, better decisions, and better outcomes.

To find out more about conducting your own climate change research using SEGA go to: http://www.sega.nau.edu/use-sega

Green Roofs — Do They Work? (Part II)

Innovative soil scientist, John Buck, and his team have discovered that green roofs have more capacity than people imagined (see part I).  Below are some of the challenges he sees for the future, and the type of measurements he suggests researchers take, as they continue to validate the effectiveness of these urban ecosystems.

Green roofs are essentially gardens on rooftops, which store water and help prevent sewage overflow.

A green roof is essentially a garden on a roof, but rather than growing plants in soil, installers use a synthetic substrate made of expanded shale, expanded clay, crushed brick, or other highly porous, lightweight material.

New Challenges for Green Roofs

Green roof results are promising, but they present a new challenge:  making sure the plants have enough water. The crux of the challenge is that the lightweight, expanded shale/clay substrate material, the standard in green roof design, does a good job of soaking up the water, but has some peculiar properties that are unlike typical soils.  Specifically, the expanded shale and expanded clay media tend to be dominated by sand and fine gravel-sized particles that provide a high proportion of macropores, but the interior porosity of the large particles is dominated with micropores.  That pore size distribution leads researchers to two important questions— How much water will be readily available for plant growth? And, will the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity be adequate to avoid starving the roots under high-evaporative demand by allowing water to flow to roots from the bulk soil? These are critical questions as green roof technologies continue to evolve.

succulents-847652_640

Researchers wonder, will the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity be adequate to avoid starving the roots under high-evaporative demand.

Measurements Required for Green Roof Validation

Still, Buck has learned a great deal from his work.  Considering the wild spatial distribution of summer storms, quantitative green roof performance studies require that rainfall be measured locally. Monitoring of soil volumetric moisture content measurements in concert with rainfall and soil lysimeter measurements of drainage, reveal the degree of total and capillary saturation, drainage rate, and porosity available for storage. Soil water potential sensors, placed within the capillary fringe of water ponded over subsurface drainage layers, can provide useful insights regarding the dryness of the drainage layer and overlying soil, as well as the available storage of stormwater within the drainage layer.

Direct measurement of soil drainage using lysimeters is a key supplemental measurement on green roof performance quantification projects because there is an unmeasured component of water storage where drought-resistant alpine succulents (typically Sedum species) are used on green roofs.  The Sedum plants can absorb up to 10 mm of rainfall equivalent in their plant tissues.

Measurement of soil drainage using lysimeters is a key supplemental measurement on green roof performance quantification projects.

Measurement of soil drainage using lysimeters is a key supplemental measurement on green roof performance quantification projects.

Other Projects and Future Plans

At ground level, Buck is quantifying the performance of intensive stormwater infiltration areas known as rain gardens, bioretention areas, or more generically, infiltration-based stormwater best management practices (Infiltration-based BMPs).  When monitoring infiltration-based stormwater BMPs, Buck has used similar tools to those used on green roofs, but has added water-level sensors and piezometers.  Buck has found that ancillary measurements of electrical conductivity, often available on water content sensors, along with surface and pore water sampling, can be used to document transformations taking place in infiltration systems.  These measurements now combine to show that green roofs and infiltration-based BMPs are indeed making a difference to urban environments and contributions to CSOs.  The challenge now is how to implement this technology more widely.  But, with the validation now in hand, that job should be quite a bit easier.

Green Roofs–Do They Work?

Green roofs are being built in large cities to provide stormwater management, reduce the urban heat island effect, and improve air quality—but are they effective?   John Buck, an innovative soil scientist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been trying to quantitatively answer this question in many different cities using soil monitoring equipment in order to determine the efficacy and best types of green infrastructure for managing stormwater.  

Green roof installation site

A green roof installation site at the Allegheny County Office Building in Pennsylvania.

Why Green Roofs?

In older cities, stormwater runoff is typically combined with sewage flows, and these combined waters are treated at a sewage treatment plant during dry weather and light rain events. Unfortunately, during more substantial storms (sometimes just a few mm of rain) the combined flows exceed the ability of the sewage treatment plant, and are discharged without treatment to surface waters as “combined sewage overflows” (CSOs). One of the ways to mitigate CSOs is to capture and store stormwater to keep it out of the combined sewer.  

A green roof is essentially a garden on a roof, but rather than growing plants in soil, installers use a synthetic substrate made of expanded shale, expanded clay, crushed brick, or other highly porous, lightweight material with high infiltration rates.  During a storm event, water will soak into the air-filled pore space in the substrate, which acts like a sponge to soak up the rain. Excess water will flow into a subsurface drainage layer and will leave the roof garden via existing roof drains. Because a substantial fraction of the stormwater is stored in the substrate, it can later dissipate through evapotranspiration instead of contributing to stormwater volume and CSOs.

Researchers are using soil moisture sensors for measuring temperature, bulk electrical conductivity and volumetric water content in green roofs and green infrastructure.

Researchers are using soil moisture sensors for measuring temperature, bulk electrical conductivity and volumetric water content in green roofs and green infrastructure.

Finding Answers

Designers and regulators want to know how well green roofs work and if they are being over-engineered. They want answers to questions such as— “What sort of substrate should I be using? What type of plants can survive green roof conditions? Will I need to irrigate the green roof when there are no storms to water the plants?” and, “Will the green roof work as well during a one-inch storm that occurs in one half hour versus a five-inch storm that occurs over five days?”  

Buck is using soil lysimeters and modified tipping bucket rain gauges to measure the quantity, intensity, and quality of water coming into and going out of the green roofs.  He also tracks weather parameters and calculates daily evapotranspiration of landscapes.  Using soil sensors, he measures electrical conductivity (dissolved salts), volumetric water content, and temperature.  He has installed data loggers that send data to the web via GSM cellular connection, allowing stakeholders access to the data in real-time.  This data telemetry provides additional data security, immediately updated results, instant feedback of system problems, and an easy way to share data with others.

Visualized data of the 87% annualized runoff reduction at Phipps Conservatory green roof site.

Visualized data of the 87% annualized runoff reduction at Phipps Conservatory green roof site in Pittsburgh, PA.

What Has Been Learned?

Buck discovered that green roofs have much more capacity than people ever imagined.  At The Penfield Apartments in St. Paul, Minnesota, the green roof retained enough water to reduce runoff to about half of a conventional roof, and the peak intensity of the runoff was about one-quarter of what it would have been without the green roof.  At Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, there was an 87% annualized runoff reduction and almost no runoff from typical summer rain events.  Buck comments, “Interestingly, on the Penfield project, we expected better hydrologic performance where soils were thicker, but there was no difference, or results were slightly the reverse of expectations. That reversal was likely due to the confounding influence of irrigation, which was probably non-uniform and not metered or measured by the rain gauge.”

Next week:  Read about some of the challenges John Buck sees for the future, and what kind of measurements he suggests researchers make, as they continue to validate the effectiveness of these urban ecosystems.

Can Wastewater Save The United Arab Emirates’ Groundwater? (Part II)

With very little recharge and irrigation comprising 75% of groundwater use, natural water resources in the United Arab Emirates region are disappearing fast (see part I).  Wafa Al Yamani and her PhD advisor, Dr. Brent Clothier, are investigating using treated sewage effluent and groundwater for irrigating the desert forests along UAE motorways.

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi

Infiltrometers Predict Dripper Behavior:

Wafa and her team used what they call, “the Ankeny twin head method” for site evaluation with infiltrometers, and they’ve been able to use it to predict dripper behavior.  They begin with the head at -60 mm, do a series of measurements to measure steady infiltration, and repeat the process at -5 mm.  They use those measurements to solve Woodings equation which has two unknowns: saturated hydraulic conductivity and capillarity.  Dr. Clothier says, “We’ve done it at two heads, and we can use Woodings equation to solve for the slope of the exponential conductivity curve.  Hence, I can predict with time, the movement of the wetting front away from the dripper.   That’s been very useful to work out what volume of soil we’re wetting.  It tells us if we should have one or two drippers.  In this forest, we think we can get away with two drippers because if they irrigate for two hours, the radius of the wet front will be 20 cm, and the depth will be about 40 cm, which is a sufficient volume of water for the tree roots.”  Dr. Clothier says they also constructed a small dyke around the drippers so they could contain the water inside the drip zone in case of hydrophobicity or uneven sand.  

Wafa on site, using the twin head method

Wafa on site, using the twin head method.

Treated Effluent Resolves Salinity Issues

Historically, the UAE pumped their sewage effluent into the Arabian Gulf, but recently, there has been a shift toward seeing it as a valuable water resource, not only for the desert forest, but for irrigation of fruit crops and date palms.  Dr. Clothier says, “Once we started getting our results we realized we were irrigating with groundwater that had high salinity, about 10 dS/m, and that treated sewage effluent had only 0.5 dS/m.  This was an important discovery because with the high salinity groundwater, you have to over-irrigate to maintain a salt leaching fraction.  However, when we apply the treated sewage effluent, we immediately see a response in the trees because it has 1/20th of the salt load.”

Dr. Clothier says that there is one problem with the trees responding so well to the sewage effluent.  The treated sewage effluent makes the trees grow taller and faster, so if the ecosystem service you want from the desert forest is that they’re 4-6 meters high, it becomes an issue.  He adds,”this is actually a positive problem, because we can now induce deficit irrigation, thereby creating a larger resource of treated sewage effluent in order to irrigate far more forests.”

Researchers irrigated with these water tanks holding groundwater and treated sewage effluent.

Researchers irrigated with water from these tanks which stored groundwater and treated sewage effluent.

What’s The Future?

Dr. Clothier says they started with a pilot study in the UAE in 2014, and it was so successful that they ended up with two fully-funded four-year projects, one on treated sewage effluent, and one investigating the irrigation of date palms. He says they have another 3 ½ years of work in the UAE on these projects, and in the end, their goal is to develop a model for forestry irrigation and soil salinity management, along with developing capability for the measurement and modeling of irrigation impacts on sustainable forestry.  They have recently developed a prototype of a computerized decision support tool for irrigation which will provide sustainable irrigation advice to optimize water use.  The support tool takes into account the need to maintain salt leaching, and actual irrigation records can be entered to enable real-time use.

 

Can Wastewater Save The United Arab Emirates’ Groundwater?

The hyper-arid United Arab Emirates (UAE) has a rapidly dwindling supply of groundwater, and that water is becoming increasingly saline.

Dubai is situated on the coast of the UAE.

Dubai is situated on the coast of the UAE.

With very little recharge and irrigation comprising 75% of groundwater use, natural water resources in this region are disappearing fast.  PhD candidate Wafa Al Yamani works for the Environmental Agency of Abu Dhabi, which has contracted with Plant and Food Research in New Zealand to investigate using treated sewage effluent and groundwater for irrigating the desert forests along their motorways.  

Sidr trees in the UAE forest.

Sidr trees in the UAE forest.

The Desert Forests

The UAE desalinates all the water for their cities, so the tertiary treated sewage effluent from these cities could be a viable resource, replacing some groundwater for irrigation of the desert forests. These forests perform a wide range of ecosystem services from sand stabilization along all UAE motorways to harboring a great deal of biodiversity.  There is also a cultural association with the forests.  The original ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, embarked on a program in the 1970’s of “greening the desert,” so the people see the desert forests as a legacy of their founder.

Infiltrometers were used to examine how the drip irrigation system worked.

Infiltrometers were used to examine how the drip irrigation system worked.

Measuring Water Use:

Wafa and her PhD adviser, Dr. Brent Clothier, had a goal to minimize groundwater use and maximize value by quantifying the irrigation needs of the UAE’s five most important desert-forestry species.  They also wanted to determine the impact of treated sewage effluent on forest growth and health.  They used infiltrometers to examine how the drip irrigation system worked.  Dr. Clothier says, “These soils have hydraulic conductivities of between 2 and 5 meters an hour.  They are highly permeable desert sands.  We can find out how wide the bulb (the wetted area underneath a irrigation dripper) is and how deep the water will travel by using an infiltrometer to look at the hydraulic properties of the soil.”  Dr. Clothier has also developed software to predict water movement radially, with depth and with the time that the drippers are on.  He comments, “We’ve now got a setup of two drippers per tree, and we will use that in the future for modeling how the trees are taking up water from the root zone.”

They built dykes of 20 cm to stop surface redistribution of dripper water.

Researchers built dykes of 20 cm to stop surface redistribution of dripper water.

The scientists used a heat pulse method to measure tree water-use by comparing sap flow with evaporative demand (ETo).  They used Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) to measure soil water content, and they have developed a “light stick” using light sensors to detect the shadow area of the trees to measure trees’ leaf area in order to predict the crop factor that will enable prediction of tree water-use from ETo.

Next week:  Find out how Wafa and her team use infiltrometers to predict dripper behavior and how the treated effluent resolves salinity issues.