In Germany, scientists are measuring the effects of tomorrow’s climate change with a vast network of 144 large lysimeters (see part 1). This week, read about the intense precision required to move the soil-filled lysimeters, how problems are prevented, and how the data is used by scientists worldwide.
Moving the lysimeters
Moving the Lysimeters is not Easy
As noted previously, one TERENO lysimeter weighs between 2.5 and 3.5 tons depending on the soil and the water saturation, so the problem of transporting it without compacting the soil or causing cracks in the soil column caused Georg many sleepless nights. He explains, “We found a truck with an air venting system, which could prevent vibrations in a wide range. We made a wooden support structure, bought 100 car springs, and loaded the lysimeter on this frame. After some careful preparation and design adjustments, I told the truck driver, ‘take care, I’m recording the entire drive with my acceleration sensor and data logger so I can see if you are driving faster than I allow.” Each lysimeter soil surface level was marked to check if the lysimeter was rendered useless due to transport, and the truck was not allowed to go over a railway or a bump in the road faster than 2 km per hour to avoid the consequences of compaction and cracking.
Understanding the water potential inside the intact lysimeter core is not trivial. Georg and his team use maintenance-free tensiometers, which overcome the typical problem of cavitation in dry conditions as they don’t need to be refilled. Still, this parameter is so critical they installed 3 of them and took the median, which can be weighed in case one of the sensors is not working. Georg says, “There is a robust algorithm behind measuring the true field situation with tensiometers.”
What Happens With the Data?
Georg hopes that many researchers will take advantage of the TERENO lysimeter network data (about 4,000 parameters stored near-continuously on a web server). He says, “Researchers have free access to the data and can publish it. It’s wonderful because it’s not only the biggest project of its kind, each site is well-maintained, and all measurements are made with the same equipment, so you can compare all the data.” (Contact Dr. Thomas Puetz for access). Right now, over 400 researchers are working with those data, which has been used in over 200 papers.
Lysimeter plant with CO2 fumigation facility in Austria.
What’s the Future?
Georg thinks 40,000 data points arriving every minute will give scientists plenty of information to work on for years to come. Each year, more TERENO standard lysimeters are installed to enlarge the database. The ones in TERENO have a 1 m2 surface area, which is fine for smaller plants like wheat or grass, but is not a good dimension for big plants like trees and shrubs. Georg points out that you have to take into account effort versus good data. Larger lysimeters present exponentially larger challenges. He admits that, “With the TERENO project, they had to make a compromise. All the lysimeters are cut at a depth of 1.5 m. If there is a mistake, it is the same with all the lysimeters, so we can compare on climate change effects.” He adds, “After six years, we now have a standard TERENO lysimeter design installed over 200 times around the world, where data can be compared through a database, enhancing our understanding of water in an era of climate change.”
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In Germany, scientists are measuring the effects of tomorrow’s climate change with a vast network of 144 large lysimeters.
The goal of these lysimeters is to measure energy balance, water flux and nutrition transport, emission of greenhouse gases, biodiversity, and solute leaching into the groundwater.
In 2008, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology began to develop a climate feedback monitoring strategy at the Ammer catchment in Southern Bavaria. In 2009, the Research Centre Juelich Institute of Agrosphere, in partnership with the Helmholtz-Network TERENO (Terrestrial Environmental Observatories) began conducting experiments in an expanded approach.
Throughout Germany, they set up a network of 144 large lysimeters with soil columns from various climatic conditions at sites where climate change may have the largest impact. In order to directly observe the effects of simulated climate change, soil columns were taken from higher altitudes with lower temperatures to sites at a lower altitude with higher temperatures and vice versa. Extreme events such as heavy rain or intense drought were also experimentally simulated.
Lysimeter locations in Germany
Georg von Unold, whose company (formerly UMS, now METER) built and installed the lysimeters comments on why the project is so important. “From a scientific perspective, we accept changes for whatever reason they may happen, but it is our responsibility to carefully monitor and predict how these changes cause floods, droughts, and disease. We need to be prepared to react if and before they affect us.”
How Big Are the Lysimeters?
Georg says that each lysimeter holds approximately 3,000 kilograms of soil and has to be moved under compaction control with specialized truck techniques. He adds, “The goal of these lysimeters is to measure energy balance,water flux and nutrition transport, emission of greenhouse gases, biodiversity, and solute leaching into the groundwater. Researchers measure the conditions of water balance in the natural soil surrounding the lysimeters, and then apply those same conditions inside the lysimeters with suction ceramic cups that lay across the bottom of the lysimeter. These cups both inject and take out water to mimic natural or artificial conditions.”
Researchers use water content sensors and tensiometers to monitor hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters.
Researchers monitor the new climate situation with microenvironment monitors and count the various grass species to see which types become dominant and which might disappear. They use water content sensors and tensiometers to monitor hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters. The systems also use a newly-designed system to inject CO2 into the atmosphere around the plants and soil to study increased carbon effects. Georg says, “We developed, in cooperation with the HBLFA Raumberg Gumpenstein, a new, fast-responding CO2 enrichment system to study CO2 from plants and soil respiration. We analyze gases like CO2, oxygen, and methane. The chambers are rotated from one lysimeter to another, working 24 hours, 7 days a week. Each lysimeter is exposed only for a few minutes so as not to change the natural environment.”
Next week: Read about the intense precision required to move the soil-filled lysimeters, how problems are prevented, and how the data is used by scientists worldwide.
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In Haiti, untreated human waste contaminating urban areas and water sources has led to widespread waterborne illness. Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) has been working to turn human waste into a resource for nutrient management by turning solid waste into compost. Read more…
Estimating the relative humidity in soil? Most people do it wrong…every time. Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell shares a lesson on how to correctly estimate soil relative humidity from his new book, Soil Physics with Python, which he recently co-authored with Dr. Marco Bittelli. Read more.…
“How many soil moisture sensors do I need?” is a question that we get from time to time. Fortunately, this is a topic that has received substantial attention by the research community over the past several years. So, we decided to consult the recent literature for insights. Here is what we learned.
Globally, the number one reason for data loggers to fail is flooding. Yet, scientists continue to try to find ways to bury their data loggers to avoid constantly removing them for cultivation, spraying, and harvest. Chris Chambers, head of Sales and Support at Decagon Devices always advises against it. Read more…
During a recent semester at Washington State University a film crew recorded all of the lectures given in the Environmental Biophysics course. The videos from each Environmental Biophysics lecture are posted here for your viewing and educational pleasure. Read more…
Soil moisture sensors belong in the soil. Unless, of course you are feeling creative, curious, or bored. Then maybe the crazy idea strikes you that if soil moisture sensors measure water content in the soil, why couldn’t they be used to measure water content in a tree? Read more…
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In the conclusion of our 3-part water potential series (see part 1), we discuss how to measure water potential–different methods, their strengths, and their limitations.
Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range.
How to measure water potential
Essentially, there are only two primary measurement methods for water potential—tensiometers and vapor pressure methods. Tensiometers work in the wet range—special tensiometers that retard the boiling point of water (UMS) have a range from 0 to about -0.2 MPa. Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range—from about -0.1 MPa to -300 MPa (0.1 MPa is 99.93% RH; -300 MPa is 11%).
Historically, these ranges did not overlap, but recent advances in tensiometer and temperature sensing technology have changed that. Now, a skilled user with excellent methods and the best equipment can measure the full water potential range in the lab.
There are reasons to look at secondary measurement methods, though. Vapor pressure methods are not useful in situ, and the accuracy of the tensiometer must be paid for with constant, careful maintenance (although a self-filling version of the tensiometer is available).
Here, we briefly cover the strengths and limitations of each method.
Vapor Pressure Methods:
The WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer is one of the few commercially available instruments that currently uses this technique. Like traditional thermocouple psychrometers, the dew point hygrometer equilibrates a sample in a sealed chamber.
WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer
A small mirror in the chamber is chilled until dew just starts to form on it. At the dew point, the WP4C measures both mirror and sample temperatures with 0.001◦C accuracy to determine the relative humidity of the vapor above the sample.
The most current version of this dew point hygrometer has an accuracy of ±1% from -5 to -300 MPa and is also relatively easy to use. Many sample types can be analyzed in five to ten minutes, although wet samples take longer.
At high water potentials, the temperature differences between saturated vapor pressure and the vapor pressure inside the sample chamber become vanishingly small.
Limitations to the resolution of the temperature measurement mean that vapor pressure methods will probably never supplant tensiometers.
The dew point hygrometer has a range of -0.1 to -300 MPa, though readings can be made beyond -0.1 MPa using special techniques. Tensiometers remain the best option for readings in the 0 to-0.1 MPa range.
Water content tends to be easier to measure than water potential, and since the two values are related, it’s possible to use a water content measurement to find water potential.
A graph showing how water potential changes as water is adsorbed into and desorbed from a specific soil matrix is called a moisture characteristic or a moisture release curve.
Example of a moisture release curve.
Every matrix that can hold water has a unique moisture characteristic, as unique and distinctive as a fingerprint. In soils, even small differences in composition and texture have a significant effect on the moisture characteristic.
Some researchers develop a moisture characteristic for a specific soil type and use that characteristic to determine water potential from water content readings. Matric potential sensors take a simpler approach by taking advantage of the second law of thermodynamics.
Matric Potential Sensors
Matric potential sensors use a porous material with known moisture characteristic. Because all energy systems tend toward equilibrium, the porous material will come to water potential equilibrium with the soil around it.
Using the moisture characteristic for the porous material, you can then measure the water content of the porous material and determine the water potential of both the porous material and the surrounding soil. Matric potential sensors use a variety of porous materials and several different methods for determining water content.
Accuracy Depends on Custom Calibration
At its best, matric potential sensors have good but not excellent accuracy. At its worst, the method can only tell you whether the soil is getting wetter or drier. A sensor’s accuracy depends on the quality of the moisture characteristic developed for the porous material and the uniformity of the material used. For good accuracy, the specific material used should be calibrated using a primary measurement method. The sensitivity of this method depends on how fast water content changes as water potential changes. Precision is determined by the quality of the moisture content measurement.
Accuracy can also be affected by temperature sensitivity. This method relies on isothermal conditions, which can be difficult to achieve. Differences in temperature between the sensor and the soil can cause significant errors.
All matric potential sensors are limited by hydraulic conductivity: as the soil gets drier, the porous material takes longer to equilibrate. The change in water content also becomes small and difficult to measure. On the wet end, the sensor’s range is limited by the air entry potential of the porous material being used.
In the second part of this month’s water potential series (see part 1), we discuss the separate components of a water potential measurement. The total water potential is the sum of four components: matric potential, osmotic potential, gravitational potential, and pressure potential. Below is a description of each component.
Matric potential arises because water is attracted to most surfaces through hydrogen bonding and van der Waals forces. This water droplet is pure but no longer free. The matric forces that bind it to the plastic have lowered its potential and you would have to use some energy to remove it from the surface and take it to a pool of pure, free water.
Soil is made up of small particles, providing lots of surfaces that will bind water. This binding is highly dependent on soil type. For example, sandy soil has large particles which provide less surface binding sites, while a silt loam has smaller particles and more surface binding sites.
The following figure showing moisture release curves for three different types of soil demonstrates the effect of surface area. Sand containing 10% water has a high matric potential, and the water is readily available to organisms and plants. Silt loam containing 10% water will have a much lower matric potential, and the water will be significantly less available.
Matric potential is always negative or zero, and is the most significant component of soil water potential in unsaturated conditions.
Osmotic potential describes the dilution and binding of water by solutes that are dissolved in the water. This potential is also always negative.
Osmotic potential only affects the system if there is a semi-permeable barrier that blocks the passage of solutes. This is actually quite common in nature. For example, plant roots allow water to pass but block most solutes. Cell membranes also form a semi-permeable barrier. A less-obvious example is the air-water interface, where water can pass into air in the vapor phase, but salts are left behind.
You can calculate osmotic potential from the following equation if you know the concentration of solute in the water.
Where C is the concentration of solute (mol/kg), ɸ is the osmotic coefficient (-0.9 to 1 for most solutes), v is the number of ions per mol (NaCl = 2, CaCl2 = 3, sucrose = 1), R is the gas constant, and T is the Kelvin temperature.
Osmotic potential is always negative or zero, and is significant in plants and some salt-affected soils.
Gravitational potential arises because of water’s location in a gravitational field. It can be positive or negative depending on where you are in relation to the specified reference of pure, free water at the soil surface. Gravitational potential is then:
Where G is the gravitational constant (9.8 m s-2) and H is the vertical distance from the reference height to the soil surface (the specified height).
You can feel positive pressure as you swim down into a lake or pool.
Pressure potential is a hydrostatic or pneumatic pressure being applied to or pulled on the water. It is a more macroscopic effect acting throughout a larger region of the system.
There are several examples of positive pressure potential in the natural environment.
For example, there is a positive pressure present below the surface of any groundwater. You can feel this pressure yourself as you swim down into a lake or pool. Similarly, a pressure head or positive pressure potential develops as you move below the water table.
Turgor pressure in plants and blood pressure in animals are two more examples of positive pressure potential.
Pressure potential can be calculated from:
Where P is the pressure (Pa) and P_W is the density of water.
Though pressure potential is usually positive, there are important cases where it is not. One is found in plants, where a negative pressure potential in the xylem draws water from the soil up through the roots and into the leaves.
This month in a 3 part series, we will explore water potential –the science behind it and how to measure it effectively.
To understand water potential, compare the water in a soil sample to water in a drinking glass.
Definition of Water Potential
Water potential is the energy required, per quantity of water, to transport an infinitesimal quantity of water from the sample to a reference pool of pure free water. To understand what that means, compare the water in a soil sample to water in a drinking glass. The water in the glass is relatively free and available; the water in the soil is bound to surfaces, diluted by solutes, and under pressure or tension. In fact, the soil water has a different energy state from “free” water. The free water can be accessed without exerting any energy. The soil water can only be extracted by expending energy. Water potential expresses how much energy you would need to expend to pull that water out of the soil sample.
Water potential is a differential property. For the measurement to have meaning, a reference must be specified. The reference typically specified is pure, free water at the soil surface. The water potential of this reference is zero. Water potential in the environment is almost always less than zero, because you have to add energy to get the water out.
You can’t tell by measuring heat content whether or not heat will be transferred to another object if the two touch each other.
Extensive vs. Intensive Variables
Water movement in the environment is really a physics problem, and to understand it, we have to distinguish between intensive and extensive variables. The extensive variable describes the extent or amount of matter or energy. The intensive variable describes the intensity or quality of matter or energy. For example, the thermal state of a substance can be described in terms of both heat content and temperature.
The two variables are related, but they are not the same. Heat content depends on mass, specific heat, and temperature. You can’t tell by measuring heat content whether or not heat will be transferred to another object if the two touch each other. So you also don’t know if the object is hot or cold, or whether it will be safe to touch.
These questions are much easier to answer if you know the intensive variable–temperature. In fact, though it can be important to measure both intensive and extensive variables, often the intensive variable gives you more useful information.
In terms of water, the extensive variable is water content, and it tells you the extent, or amount, of water in plant tissue or soil. The intensive variable is water potential, and it describes the intensity or quality of water in plant tissue or soil. Water content can only tell you how much water you have. If you want to know how fast it can move, you need to measure hydraulic conductivity. If you want to know whether it will move and where it’s going to go, you need water potential.
If you want to know whether water will move and where it’s going to go, you need water potential.
Two Key Water Potential Questions:
1. Where will water move? Water will always flow from high potential to low potential. This is the second law of thermodynamics—energy flows along the gradient of the intensive variable.
2. What is the availability of water to plants? Liquid water moves from soil to and through roots, through the xylem of plants, to the leaves, and eventually evaporates in the substomatal cavities of the leaf. The driving force for this flow is a water potential gradient. In order for water to flow, therefore, the leaf water potential must be lower than the soil water potential.
Recently, we wrote about scientists who were burying their data loggers (read it here). Radu Carcoana, research specialist and Dr. Aaron Daigh, assistant professor at North Dakota State University, used paint cans to completely seal their data loggers before burying them in the fall of 2015.
Paint can setup for buried data logger.
They drilled ports for the sensor cables, sealed them up, and when they needed to collect data, they dug up the cans, retrieved the instruments, and downloaded the data in a minute or less.
Here Radu gives an update of what happened when he dug up his buried instruments in the spring.
Results of the Paint Can Experiment
In May of this year, we dug up eighteen units (one data logger and four soil moisture sensors per unit) left in the field since November 2015–over six months.
Did moisture get into the paint cans? –We found only three cans with water in them, purely due to installation techniques used for that specific unit. The other fifteen units were bone dry, although total precipitation for the month of April only amounted to 3.63 inches, plus the snow melt.
How was data recording and recovery? — For six months, every 30 minutes the soil moisture sensors took readings, the data logger recorded, and we retrieved all of the data, complete and unaltered.
Only three cans with water in them, due to installation techniques.
What about power consumption? The batteries were good – over 90% did not need replacement. The power budget provided by 5 AA batteries was more than enough for reading four soil moisture sensors at 30 minute intervals.
What Happens Now?
In the spring of this year, we installed 18 more units in the third farm field, right after planting soya. We now have 36 individual units (~$1,000 value each unit) buried in the ground in the middle of a field planted with corn or soybean, since the beginning of May.
On October 13-14 (after 5 months), we accessed the first twelve units (Farm A). All 30 minutes of data was read, recorded, and downloaded (since May). The batteries and the other accessories were replaced, and then we sealed and reburied the cans. Only one unit out of twelve had an issue and was replaced: the battery exploded in the can (editor’s note: battery explosion is usually caused by a manufacturing defect and the risk can be lessened by purchasing higher quality batteries, although all types are susceptible to some degree). Since battery leakage will often corrode everything the acid touches, the data logger had to be sent back for repair and there may be partial data loss. The other 24 units (Farm B and C) will be accessed next week, weather permitting.
Over 90% of batteries did not need replacement.
Is the Paint Can Method Worth it?
We will continue to monitor and retrieve the data from the buried data loggers (We don’t use data loggers suited for wireless communication, because several factors guided us not to). The paint can system works very well if the installation is done correctly, with great attention to detail, and it costs only $2.00/can. However, there are improvements that could be made in order to have this method become a standard in soil research. For instance, though we are still using paint cans and other common materials, advancements in the design of waterproof containers and sturdiness would be a huge step forward. This is just a well thought out concept – a prototype. It proves that burying electronics for a longer period of time can be done if properly executed.
Note: METER’s (formerly Decagon) official position is that you should never bury your data logger. But we couldn’t resist sharing a few stories of scientists who have figured out some innovative methods which may or may not be successful, if tried at other sites.
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In Italy, on January of 2014, one of the Secchia river leveesfailed, causing millions of dollars in flood damage and two fatalities. Concerned withpreventing similar disasters, scientists and geotechnical engineers are using soil sensors to investigate solutions in a project called, INFRASAFE (Intelligent monitoring for safe infrastructures) funded by the Emilia Romagna Region (Italy) on European Funds.
Professor Alberto Lamberti, Professor Guido Gottardi, Department of Civil, Chemical, Environmental, and Materials Engineering, University of Bologna, along with Prof. Marco Bittelli, University of Bologna professor of Soil and Environmental Physics, installed soil sensors along some transects of the Secchia river to monitor water potential and piezometric pressure. They want to study properties of the compacted levee “soil”, during intense flooding. Bittelli comments, “Rainfall patterns are changing due to climate change, and we are seeing more intense floods. There is a concern about monitoring levees so that we can, through studying the process, eventually create a warning system.”
Trench for burying sensor cables.
What Are The Levees Made Of?
Amazingly, some of these levees are very old, built at the beginning of the second millennium to protect the Secchia valley population from floods. “These rudimentary barrages were the starting point of the huge undertakings, aiming at the regulation and stabilization of the river, which were gradually developed and expanded in the following centuries…building up a continuous chain all along the river.” (Marchii et. al., 1995)
Vegetation in the Secchia River flood plain.
Unlike natural soil with horizons, the soil that makes up the levees is made up of extremely compact clay and other materials, which will pose challenges to the research team in terms of sensor installation. The team will use soil sensors to determine when the compacted material that makes up the levees gets so saturated it becomes weak. Bittelli says, “We are looking at the mechanical properties of the levees, but mechanical properties are strongly dependent on hydraulic properties, particularly soil water potential (or soil suction). A change in water potential changes the mechanical properties and weakens the structure.” This can happen either when a soil dries below an optimal limit or wets above it; the result is a weakened barrier that can fail under load.
Here the team uses an installation tool to install water content sensors.
Soil Sensors Present Installation Challenges
To solve the installation problems, the team will use a specialized installation tool to insert their water content sensors. Bittelli says, “Our main challenge is to install sensors deep into the levees without disturbing the soil too much. It’s very important to have this tool because clearly we cannot dig out a levee; we might be the instigator of a flood. So it was necessary for us to be able to install the sensors in a relatively small borehole.” The researchers will install the sensors farther down than the current tool allows, so they are modifying it to go down to eight or ten meters. Bittelli explains, “We used a prototype installation tool which is two meters long. We modified it in the shop and extended it to six meters to be able to install water content sensors at further depths.”
Another challenge facing the research team is how to install water potential sensors without disturbing the levee. Marco explains, “We placed an MPS-6 into a cylinder of local soil prepared in the lab. A sort of a muffin made of soil with an MPS-6 inside. Then we lowered the cylinder into the borehole, installed the sensor inside, and then slid it down into the hole. Our goal is to try and keep the structure of the soil intact. Since the cylinder is made of the same local soil, and it is in good contact with the borehole walls, hydraulic continuity will be established.”
Researchers placed a MPS-6 into a cylinder of local soil prepared in the lab.
Unlike installing water content sensors, matric potential sensors don’t need to be installed in undisturbed soil but only require good contact between the sensor and the bulk soil so liquid water can easily equilibrate between the two. The researchers are also contemplating using a small camera with a light so they can see from above if the installation is successful.
Find Out More
The researchers will collect data at two experimental stations, one on the Po river, and one on the Secchia River. So far, the first installation was successfully performed, and data are collected from the website. Bitteli says the first installation included water content, temperature, and electrical conductivity sensors, water potential sensors, and tensiometers connected to a wireless network that will transmit all the data to a central office for analysis.
You can read more about this project and how it’s progressing here.
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Each time a rain, hail, or snow storm crosses over your area, volunteers are taking precipitation measurements that are then used to analyze situations ranging from water resource availability to severe storm warnings.
CoCoRaHS precipitation data is used by many high profile organizations.
CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network) is a non-profit community-based network of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation (rain, hail and snow). Their data is used by the National Weather Service, meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities, USDA, engineers, farmers, and more. The organization will soon add another layer to their weather-monitoring efforts: soil moisture measurement.
In 1997, a localized flooding event in Fort Collins, Colorado was not well-warned due to lack of high-density precipitation observation.
Why Soil Moisture?
CoCoRaHS originated as the brain child of Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist of Colorado, in 1997 in response to a localized flooding event in Fort Collins, CO that was not well-warned due to lack of high-density precipitation observations. Ten years ago the Colorado Climate Center began a partnership with the National Integrated Drought Information System to establish the first regional drought early warning system. This particular system would serve the Upper Colorado River Basin and eastern Colorado.
From the beginning, Nolan was thinking about soil moisture. He says, “When we first started this project, we identified one weakness of the current climate monitoring systems as the inability to quantitatively assess soil moisture. Soil moisture is critical as it affects both short term weather forecasts and long-term seasonal forecasts, which are important for drought early warning and avoiding the agricultural consequences of too much or too little soil moisture.”It wasn’t until years later in the drought of 2012, which developed rapidly in the mid and late spring across the intermountain west and central plains that Nolan began planning to use CoCoRaHS as a vehicle for improving the soil moisture aspect of drought early warning.
The organization intends to measure soil moisture using the gravimetric method.
How Will Volunteers Measure Soil Moisture?
Historically, CoCoRaHS has had success using low-cost measurement tools, stressing training and education, and using an interactive web-site to provide the highest quality data, and soil moisture will be no different. The organization intends to measure soil moisture using the gravimetric method, where the user will take samples using a soil ring, dry samples in their own oven, and measure sample weight with an electronic scale. Peter Goble, a research assistant at Colorado State, has developed the measurement protocols that volunteers will follow. He says, “We have installed several different types of soil sensors and tried gravimetric techniques in a field next to the center, and our experience has helped us set up a protocol that gets observers as educated as they can be by the time they take their measurements. The coring device we use is something that came about through trial and error. We were trying to reconcile the fact that we really wanted deeper root zone measurements in order to satisfy drought early-warning-system users, and the need for an inexpensive set of standardized materials that we could send out to observers in a kit.” Volunteers will take soil samples at each point in a grid pattern, both at the surface and at the 7-9 inch level near the root zone.
What will Happen to the Data?
Initially, while the program is in its test phase, the data will be put in a spreadsheet and shared. However, once CoCoRaHS has finished sending this protocol around the nation to a group of alpha testers, they’ll set up a website infrastructure enabling volunteers to enter their VWC data directly into the CoCoRaHS website.
The need for soil moisture measurement in weather monitoring will outweigh the volunteers’ ability to measure, but there is a solution.
Why the Gravimetric Method?
Nolan says the challenge of water content is that soil is highly variable across space. And if you add issues like sensor performance, improper installation of sensors, problems with soil contact, changes in bulk density, and soil compaction, you end up with inconsistent data. The gravimetric method will avoid inconsistencies in spatial measurements and ensure higher quality data.
An Overwhelming Task
Nolan says the need for soil moisture measurement in weather monitoring will outweigh the volunteers’ ability to measure, but there is a solution. “People who use soil moisture data in atmospheric applications need high resolution, gridded information in every square kilometer across the country, but it will happen through modeling. The measurements we take of precipitation and soil moisture will help in the refinement of the weather modules the atmospheric scientists will use as input to their weather prediction models.”
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Alkali bee beds are maintained by farmers near Touchet, Washington to pollinate fields of alfalfa, grown there for seed. The beds are typically a few acres in size and provide a nesting place for the bees, which can boost alfalfa seed production by as much as 70 percent. Alkali bees are better than honeybees for pollinating alfalfa, as they don’t mind the “tripping” mechanism of the alfalfa flower, which releases pollen explosively.
USDA-ARS entomologist, Dr. Jim Cane, is trying to understand optimal bee-soil-water relations to ensure the bees will happily reproduce next year’s pollinators. Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell recently worked with Dr. Cane to measure water relations in bee nesting beds. Here’s what they found out:
Why Water Relations Matter
Alkali bees nest underground. They prefer salty soil surfaces which retard evaporation and discourage plant growth. The soil has to be the right texture, density, and have the correct moisture levels for successful nesting. In addition, the water potential of the larval food provision mass has to be low so it does not mold. Growers apply high levels of sodium chloride to the bee bed surface, and the soil is sub-irrigated to keep the salt near the surface and the subsurface soil moist.
Bottom right: a white larvae on a gold colored provision mass inside one of the tunnels dug by the female.
The female digs a tunnel down to a favorable depth, typically 15-20 cm or more, hollows out a spheroidal shaped cell around 1 cm diameter, and carefully coats the inside of the cell with a special secretion that appears to form a hydraulic and vapor barrier between the soil and the nest contents. She then builds a provision mass from pollen and nectar, shaped like a oblate spheroid with major axis around 6 mm and minor axis 3-4 mm. One egg is laid on the provision mass (which provides food for the larva), and the mother bee then seals up the entrance to the cell and moves on to the next one.
The female coats the inside of the cell with a special secretion that appears to form a hydraulic and vapor barrier between the soil and the nest contents.
Specialized Instruments for Each Measurement
In order to understand moisture relations between the soil, the larva, and the food provision mass, Dr. Cane carefully excavated three soil blocks from one of the bee beds, dissected them to find nests, and Dr. Campbell helped measure water potentials of the eggs, larvae, and provision masses. They also measured matric and total water potentials of bee bed soils.
A sample chamber psychrometer
A Sample Chamber Psychrometer is the only water potential device with a small enough sample chamber to be able to measure individual eggs and early-stage larvae, which it did. The provision masses were too dry to measure with the psychrometer, so several provisions were combined (to provide sufficient sample size) and measured in a Dew Point Potentiameter, along with the soil samples. Dr. Campbell measured measured matric potential of the highly saline soils using a tensiometer.
Water Potential Seems Important to the Bees
Dr. Campbell thinks matric potential is important in determining physical condition of the soil (how easy it is for the bees to dig and paint the inside of the nest), but probably has little to do with bee or larva water relations. The water potentials of the eggs and larvae were low (dry), but within the range one sees in living organisms. There was a consistent pattern of larva water potential decreasing with larval growth.
This alkali bee seeks shelter during the rain in a previously dug tunnel.
The exciting part of this experiment was the provision mass water potentials, which were so low that it is more convenient to talk about them in terms of water activity (another measure of the energy state of water in a system, widely used by food scientists). The intact provision masses were drier than any of the soil water potentials and not in equilibrium with the soil. Dr. Campbell says, “It’s interesting that all the provision masses were at water activities that would make them immune to degradation by almost all microbes, both bacteria and fungi.”
Another Interesting Observation
Dr. Cane found one provision mass covered with mold. Soil and plants are full of inoculum, so it is unlikely that the other provision masses lacked spores, but this one was wet enough to be compromised, and the others apparently weren’t. Dr. Campbell says, “There are two possibilities. Either it was put up too wet, or it got wet in the nest. The really interesting question is why all of them don’t get that wet. I think the hydrophobic coating of the nest eliminates all hydraulic contact from the soil to the provision mass, thus eliminating any liquid water flow, which would almost immediately wet the pollen balls. I think it also drastically reduces the vapor conductance from the soil to the ball, making water uptake through the vapor phase slow enough that the provision mass can usually be consumed before its water activity gets high enough for mold to grow.”
Tool the grower uses to punch holes in the nesting beds for the bees to tunnel into.
How Do Larvae Stay Hydrated?
The water activity of the larvae were around 0.99, much higher than either the soil or the provision mass, inspiring the scientists to wonder how they stay hydrated. Dr. Campbell speculates, “They have a water source from their metabolism, since water is a byproduct of respiration (Campbell and Norman, p. 205). It is also possible for biological systems to take up water against a potential gradient by expending energy. There are reports of a beetle which can take up water from a drop of saturated NaCl (water activity 0.75), so it is possible that the larva gets water from the environment that way. There appears to be no shortage of energy available. On the other hand, it would seem like the larval cuticle would need to be pretty impermeable to maintain water balance since the salty soil, and especially the provision mass, are so much drier than the larva.” Dr. Cane notes that,”For a few exemplar bee species, mature larvae weigh 30-40% more than the provision they ate, with the possibility that the provision undergoes a controlled hydration by the soil atmosphere through the uncoated soil cap of the nest cell.”
In the future, Dr. Campbell is hoping to see more experiments that will answer some of the questions raised, such as measuring individual provision masses to determine why there is some variation in water potential. Dr. Cane will be undertaking experiments to measure moisture weight gain of new provisions exposed to the soil atmosphere of the Touchet nest bed soil.
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Campbell, G. S. 1985. Soil Physics with BASIC: Transport Models for Soil-Plant Systems. Elsevier, New York.
Campbell, G. S. and J. M. Norman. 1998. An Introduction to Environmental Biophysics. Springer Verlag, N. Y.
Rawlins, S. L. and G. S. Campbell. 1986. Water potential: thermocouple psychrometry. In Methods of Soil Analysis, Part 1. Physical and Mineralogical Methods – Agronomy Monograph 9, 2nd edition.