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Can Canopy Measurements Determine Soil Moisture?

As a young university student, Dr. Y. Osroosh, now a researcher at Washington State University, wanted to design the most accurate soil moisture sensor.  Over the years, however, he began to realize the complexity and difficulty of the task.  Inspired by the work of Jackson et al. (1981) and researchers in Bushland, TX, he now believes that plants are the best soil moisture sensors.  He and his team developed a new model for interpreting plant canopy signals to indirectly determine soil moisture.

Apple tree canopy

The team measured microclimatic data in an apple orchard.

How Can Plants Indicate Water in Soil?

Osroosh and his team wanted to use plant stress instead of soil sensors to make irrigation decisions in a drip-irrigated Fuji apple tree orchard. But, the current practice of using the crop water stress index (CWSI) for detecting water stress presented some problems,  Osroosh comments, “Currently, scientists use either an empirical CWSI or a theoretical one developed using equations from FAO-56, but the basis for FAO-56 equations is alfalfa or grass, which isn’t similar to apple trees.”  One of the main differences between grass and apple trees is that apple tree leaves are highly linked to atmospheric conditions. They control their stomata to avoid water loss.  

Apple tree canopy

There is high degree of coupling between apple leaves and the humidity of the surrounding air.

So Osroosh borrowed a leaf porometer to measure the stomatal conductance of apple trees, and he developed his own crop water stress index, based on what he found.  He explains,We developed a new theoretical crop water stress index specifically for apple trees. It accounts for stomatal regulations in apple trees using a canopy conductance sub-model. It also estimates average actual and potential transpiration rates for the canopy area which is viewed by a thermal infrared sensor (IRT).”

Fuji apple orchard (Roza Farm, Prosser, WA).

Fuji apple orchard (Roza Farm, Prosser, WA) where Osroosh performed his research.

What Data Was Used?

Osroosh says they established their new “Apple Tree” CWSI based on the energy budget of a single apple leaf, so “soil heat flux” was not a component in their modeling. He and his team measured soil water deficit using a neutron probe in the top 60 cm of the profile, and they collected canopy surface temperature data using thermal infrared sensors. The team also measured microclimatic data in the orchard.  

apple tree canopy

Neutron probes were problematic, as they did not allow collection of data in real time.

Osroosh comments, “The accuracy of this approach greatly depends on the accuracy of reference soil moisture measurement methods.  To establish a relationship between CWSI and soil water, we needed to measure soil water content in the root zone precisely. We used a neutron probe, which provides enough precision and volume of influence to meet our requirements.  However, it was a labor and time intensive method which did not allow for real-time measurements, posing a serious limitation.”

Next week: Learn the results of Dr. Osroosh’s experiments, the future of this research, and about other researchers who are trying to achieve similar goals.

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