How Do you Know You’re Getting Accurate Soil Moisture?
Researchers and irrigators may wonder if their soil moisture sensors are accurate because probes at different locations in the same field have different water content readings. Different readings in soil moisture sensors are caused by spatial variation in water content. These readings provide researchers valuable information about soil texture, watering patterns, and water use. Here are some ideas and strategies to keep in mind when trying to understand the varying patterns of soil moisture at your research or irrigation site. Click the links for more in-depth information about accurate soil moisture.
Horizontal vs. Vertical Variation
It’s helpful to distinguish variation in the vertical from variation in the horizontal. Most people expect strong vertical variation due to wetting and drying patterns, soil horizonation, and compaction. Water content can vary drastically over distances of only a few centimeters, especially near the soil surface. Horizontal variation is typically less pronounced in a bare or uniformly planted field, and at a given depth, it might be quite small. But surprisingly large variations can exist, indicating isolated patches of sand or clay or differences in topography. One irrigator noticed a few sensors indicating low water content after a heavy rain that had uniformly wetted his vineyard. Knowing that sand has a low field capacity water content, he surmised (correctly) that he had found the sandy areas in the vineyard.
Because properly installed dielectric soil moisture sensors lie in undisturbed (and therefore unanalyzed) soil, they sometimes measure unexpected things. One researcher buried a probe in what appeared to be a very dry location and was startled to measure 25 to 30% volumetric water content. Those readings made the soil appear saturated, but obviously it wasn’t. She dug down to the sensor and found a pocket of clay. As she discovered, it is impossible to get much information from an absolute water content measurement without knowing what type of soil the sensor is in.
Since we expect variation, how do we account for it? How many probes are needed to adequately characterize the water content in an application or experiment? There is no simple answer to this question. The answer will be affected by your site, your goals, and how you plan to analyze your data. Here are some things you might consider as you plan.
Strategy #1: Irrigation—Use Soil Moisture as an Indicator
What information do you have when you know a field’s volumetric water content? That number independently tells an irrigator very little. Soil moisture can be used like a gauge to show when a field is full and when it needs to be refilled, but the “full” and “empty” are only meaningful in context.
The goals of irrigation are to keep root zone water within prescribed limits and to minimize deep drainage. Understanding and monitoring the vertical variation lets you correlate a real-time graph of water use data with above-ground field conditions and plant water needs. It makes sense to place probes both within and below the root zone.
By contrast, measuring horizontal variation—placing sensors at different spots in the field—is not very helpful. If a field will be irrigated as a unit, it should be monitored as a unit at one representative spot. Because there’s no way to adjust water application in specific spots, there’s no benefit to quantifying spatial variation in the horizontal. Like a float in a gas tank, a set of soil moisture sensors in the right spot will adequately represent the changing soil moisture condition of the whole field.
We recommend a single probe location in each irrigation zone with a minimum of one probe in the root zone and one probe below it. Additional probes at that site, within and below the root zone, will increase the reliability of the information for the irrigation manager, at minimal additional cost.
In two weeks: Learn two more techniques researchers use in crop studies and ecology studies to account for variability in order to obtain an accurate soil moisture picture.
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