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Posts from the ‘HYPROP’ Category

Hydrology 301: What a Hydraulic Conductivity Curve Tells You & More

Hydraulic conductivity is the ability of a porous medium (soil for instance) to transmit water in saturated or nearly saturated conditions. It’s dependent on several factors: size distribution, roughness, tortuosity, shape, and degree of interconnection of water-conducting pores. A hydraulic conductivity curve tells you, at a given water potential, the ability of the soil to conduct water.

One factor that affects hydraulic conductivity is how strong the structure is in the soil you’re measuring.

For example, as the soil dries, what is the ability of water to go from the top of a sample [or soil layer in the field] to the bottom. These curves are used in modeling to illustrate or predict what will happen to water moving in a soil system during fluctuating moisture conditions. Researchers can combine hydraulic conductivity data from two laboratory instruments, the KSAT and the HYPROP, to produce a full hydraulic conductivity curve (Figure 1).

Hydraulic conductivity curve

Figure 1. Example of hydraulic conductivity curves for three different soil types. The curves go from field saturation on the right to unsaturated hydraulic conductivity on the left.  They illustrate the difference between a well-structured clayey soil to a poorly structured clayey soil and the importance of structure to hydraulic conductivity especially at, or near, saturation.

In Hydrology 301, Leo Rivera, Research Scientist at METER, discusses hydraulic conductivity and the advantages and disadvantages of methods used to measure it.

Watch the webinar below.



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Lab versus in situ soil water characteristic curves—a comparison

The HYPROP and WP4C provide the ability to make fast, accurate soil moisture release curves (soil water characteristic curves-SWCCs), but lab measurements have some limitations: sample throughput limits the number of curves that can be produced, and curves generated in a laboratory do not represent their in situ behavior. Lab-produced soil water retention curves can be paired with information from in situ moisture release curves for deeper insight into real world variability.

soil water characteristic curves

Soil water characteristic curves help determine soil type, soil hydraulic properties, and mechanical performance and stability

Moisture release curves in the field? Yes, it’s possible.

Colocating matric potential sensors and water content sensors in situ add many more moisture release curves to a researcher’s knowledge base. And, since it is primarily the in-place performance of unsaturated soils that is the chief concern to geotechnical engineers and irrigation scientists, adding in situ measurements to lab-produced curves would be ideal.

In this brief 20-minute webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell, METER research scientist, summarizes a recent paper given at the Pan American Conference of Unsaturated Soils. The paper, “Comparing in situ soil water characteristic curves to those generated in the lab” by Campbell et al. (2018), illustrates how well in situ generated SWCCs using the TEROS 21 calibrated matric potential sensor and METER’s GS3 water content sensor compare to those created in the lab.

Watch the webinar below:



Lab vs. field instruments—when to use both

Whether researchers measure soil hydraulic properties in the lab or in the field, they’re only getting part of the picture. Laboratory systems are highly accurate due to controlled conditions, but lab measurements don’t take into account site variability such as roots, cracks, or wormholes that might affect soil hydrology. In addition, when researchers take a sample from the field to the lab, they often compress soil macropores during the sampling process, altering the hydraulic properties of the soil.

Field sensors

Roots, cracks, and wormholes all affect soil hydrology

Field experiments help researchers understand variability and real time conditions, but they have the opposite set of problems. The field is an uncontrolled system. Water moves through the soil profile by evaporation, plant uptake, capillary rise, or deep drainage, requiring many measurements at different depths and locations. Field researchers also have to deal with the unpredictability of the weather. Precipitation may cause a field drydown experiment to take an entire summer, whereas in the lab it takes only a week.

The big picture—supersized

Researchers who use both lab and field techniques while understanding each method’s strengths and limitations can exponentially increase their understanding of what’s happening in the soil profile. For example, in the laboratory, a researcher might use the PARIO soil texture analyzer to obtain accurate soil texture data, including a complete particle size distribution. They could then combine those data with a HYPROP-generated soil moisture release curve to understand the hydraulic properties of that soil type. If that researcher then adds high-quality field data in order to understand real world field conditions, then suddenly they’re seeing the larger picture.

Field instruments

Table 1. Lab and field instrument strengths and limitations

Below is an exploration of lab versus field instrumentation and how researchers can combine these instruments for an increased understanding of their soil profile. Click the links for more in-depth information about each topic.

Particle size distribution and why it matters

Soil type and particle size analysis are the first window into the soil and its unique characteristics. Every researcher should identify the type of soil that they’re working with in order to benchmark their data.

Field instruments

Particle size analysis defines the percentage of coarse to fine material that makes up a soil

If researchers don’t understand their soil type, they can’t make assumptions about the state of soil water based on water content (i.e., if they work with plants, they won’t be able to predict whether there will be plant available water). In addition, differing soil types in the soil’s horizons may influence a researcher’s measurement selection, sensor choice, and sensor placement.

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A comparison of water potential instrument ranges

Water potential is the most fundamental and essential measurement in soil physics because it describes the force that drives water movement.

Water potential helps researchers determine how much water is available to plants.

Making good water potential measurements is largely a function of choosing the right instrument and using it skillfully.  In an ideal world, there would be one instrument that simply and accurately measured water potential over its entire range from wet to dry.  In the real world, there is an assortment of instruments, each with its unique personality.  Each has its quirks, advantages, and disadvantages.  Each has a well-defined range.

Below is a comparison of water potential instruments and the ranges they measure.

water potential instrument ranges

A comparison of water potential instrument ranges

To learn more about measuring water potential, see the articles or videos below:


How to Create a Full Soil Moisture Release Curve

Two Old Problems

Soil moisture release curves have always had two weak areas: a span of limited data between 0 and -100 kPa and a gap around field capacity where no instrument could make accurate measurements.

Soil moisture release curve

Using HYPROP with the redesigned WP4C, a skilled experimenter can now make complete high resolution moisture release curves.

Between 0 and -100 kPa, soil loses half or more of its water content. If you use pressure plates to create data points for this section of a soil moisture release curve, the curve will be based on only five data points.

And then there’s the gap. The lowest tensiometer readings cut out at -0.85 MPa, while historically the highest WP4 water potential meter range barely reached -1 MPa. That left a hole in the curve right in the middle of plant-available range.

New Technology Closes the Gap

Read more

Examining Plant Stress using Water Potential and Hydraulic Conductivity

Many scientists rely on water potential alone to measure plant water stress.  Leo Rivera, a METER soil scientist, shows how a two-pronged approach, using hydraulic conductivity as well as water potential, can make those measurements more powerful.  

Measuring hydraulic conductivity in nursery plants shows why plants are stressed.

Measuring hydraulic conductivity in nursery plants shows why plants are stressed.

Soil moisture release curves can give you incredible detail about water movement, allowing you to understand not only that plants are stressed, but WHY they are not getting the water they need.

Recently, we ran into a mystery where this method was useful.  Growers at a Georgia nursery noticed that plants growing in a particular soilless substrate were beginning to show signs of stress at about -10 kPa water potential, which is still really wet.  They wanted to know why.

We decided to create the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity and soil moisture release curves  for the substrate (using the Wind Schindler technique [HYPROP lab instrument]) and found that it had a dual porosity curve: essentially, a curve with a “stair step” in it. The source of the “stair step” can be explained by considering the substrate, which was made up of bark mixed with some other fine organic materials. In the bark material there were a lot of large and small pores, but no medium-sized pores (this is called a “gap-graded” pore size distribution).  This gap in the pore size distribution reduced the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity and caused the stress.  Even though there was available water in the soil, it couldn’t flow to the plant roots.

hydraulic conductivity

Nursery seedlings

That would have been pretty hard to understand without detailed hydraulic conductivity and soil moisture release curves–curves with more detail than most traditional techniques can provide.  Our measurements showed that unsaturated hydraulic conductivity can have a major effect on how available water is to plants.  Our theory about the soilless substrate was that as the roots were taking up  water, they dried the soil around them pretty quickly.  In a typical mineral soil, the continuous pore size distribution would allow water to flow along a water potential gradient from the surrounding area to the soil adjacent to the roots. In the bark, the roots dried the area around them in the same way, but the gap in pore size distribution created low hydraulic conductivity and prevented water from moving into the soil adjacent to the roots.  This caused plants to start stressing even though the substrate was still quite wet. 

We were pretty excited about this discovery. It shows that water potential, though critical, may not always tell the whole story.  Using technology to measure the full soil moisture release curve and the hydraulic conductivity in one continuous test, we discovered the real reason plants were wilting even when surrounded by water.  In the past, it took three or four different instruments and several months to take these measurements.   We can now do it in a week.  For more information about creating these kinds of curves, check out the app guide:  “Tools and Tips for Measuring the Full Soil Moisture Release Curve. ”

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