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Posts from the ‘Water Potential sensors’ Category

Water Potential Instruments used to Determine Where Alkali Bee Larvae Get their Water

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 increase seed production by as much as 70 percent. Alkali bees are better than honeybees for pollinating alfalfa, as they don’t mind the explosive pollen release of the alfalfa flower.

Alkali Bee

Alkali Bee

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.  

Alkali Bee

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 an 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.  

Alkali Bee

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.  

alkali bee

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 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.  

alkali bee hiding

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.”

alkali bees

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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References

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.

Do Soil Microbes Influence Plant Response to Heat Waves? (Part II)

Rachel Rubin, PhD candidate at Northern Arizona University and her team at Northern Arizona University are investigating the role soil microbes play in plant response to heat waves, including associated impacts to microbial-available and plant-available water (see part 1). Because heat waves threaten plant productivity, they present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration. Below are the results of Rachel’s experiments, some of the challenges the team faced, and the future of this research.

microbes

Heat waves present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration.

Challenges

Rachel says the experiment was not without its difficulties. After devoting weeks towards custom wiring the electrical array, the team had to splice heat-resistant romex wire leading from the lamps to the dimmer switches, because the wires inside the lamp fixtures kept melting. Also, automation was not possible with this system. She explains, “We were out there multiple times a day, checking the treatment, making sure the lamps were still on, and repairing lamps with our multi-tools. We used an infrared camera and an infrared thermometer in the field, so we could constantly see how the heating footprint was being applied to keep it consistent across all the plots.”

microbes

Arizona Fescue (image: wickipedia.com)

Some Grass was Heat Resistant

Rachel says her biggest finding was that all of the C4 grasses survived the field heat wave, whereas only a third of the Arizona Fescue plants survived. She adds that the initially strong inoculum effects in the greenhouse diminished after outplanting, with no differences between intact, heat-primed inoculum or sterilized inoculum for either plant species in the field. “It may be related to inoculum fatigue,” she explains, “the microbes in the intact treatment may have become exhausted by the time the plants were placed in the field, or maybe they became replaced, consumed, or outcompeted by other microbes within the field site”. Rachel emphasizes that it’s important to conduct more field experiments on plant-microbe interactions. She says, “Field experiments can be more difficult than greenhouse studies, because less is under our control, but we need to embrace this complexity. In practice, inoculants will have to contend with whatever is already present in the field. It’s an exciting time to be in microbial ecology because we are just starting to address how microbes influence each other in real soil communities.”

microbes

Diminished effects may be related to inoculum fatigue.

What’s In Store?

Now that the team has collected data from the greenhouse and from the heat wave itself, they have started looking at mycorrhizal colonization of plant roots, as well as sequencing of bacterial and archaeal communities from the greenhouse study. Rachel says, “It’s quite an endeavor to link ‘ruler science’ plant restoration to bacterial communities at the cellular level. I’m curious to see if heat waves simply reduce all taxa equally or if there is a re-sorting of the community, favoring genera or species that are really good at handling harsh conditions.”

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Do Soil Microbes Influence Plant Response to Heat Waves?

Rachel Rubin, PhD candidate at Northern Arizona University, is interested in the intersection of extreme climate events and disturbance, which together have a much greater impact on plant communities. She and her team at Northern Arizona University are investigating the role soil microbes play in plant response to heat waves, including associated impacts to microbial-available and plant-available water.

soil microbes

Plants have a tight co-evolutionary history with soil microbes. It has been said that there is no microbe-free plant on earth.

Because heat waves threaten plant productivity, they present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration.

Can Soil Microbes Increase Heat Resistance?

Many plants maintain mutualistic associations with a diverse microbiome found within the rhizosphere, the region of soil that directly surrounds plant roots. These “plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria” and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi provision limiting resources including water, phosphorus and nitrogen in exchange for photosynthetically derived sugars. However, we understand very little about whether extreme events can disrupt these interactions.

soil microbes

Fig. 1. Fine roots exploring the inoculum that was added as a band between layers of potting mixture.

Rachel and her team exposed rhizosphere communities to heat stress and evaluated the performance of native grasses both in the greenhouse, and transplanted under an artificial heat wave. They hypothesized that locally-sourced inoculum (a sample of local soil containing the right microbes) or even heat-primed inoculum would help alleviate water stress and improve survival of native grasses.

The Experiments

Rubin started in the greenhouse by planting Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis, C4 grass) and Arizona Fescue (Festuca arizonica, C3 grass) and assessed their responsiveness to locally collected soil inoculum that had either been left intact, pre-heated or sterilized (Fig. 1). Rubin says, “We expected that our plants would benefit the most from having intact soil microbe communities. But, we were surprised to find very large differences between plant species. Blue Grama performed the best with intact inoculum, whereas Arizona Fescue performed better with pre-heated or sterilized soil”. This could mean that Blue Grama is more dependent on its microbiome, whereas Arizona Fescue engineers a rhizosphere that contains more parasitic microbes rather than mutualistic microbes. Rachel says that understanding this relationship is important for tailoring plant restoration projects to local conditions. Plants that exhibit high levels of mutualisms with their rhizosphere might require an extra inoculum “boost” in order to successfully establish in highly degraded soil, whereas we should not bother to inoculate plants that tend to harbor parasites within their rhizosphere.

soil microbes

Fig. 2. A heated plot in the foreground connected to infrared lamps, water content and matric potential sensors, and EM50 data loggers.

After the team studied these responses, they planted the grasses into a degraded section of a grassland and installed an array of 1000-Watt ceramic infrared lamps mounted on steel frames (Fig. 2) to address whether inoculation influenced plant performance and survival. With help from a savvy undergraduate electrical engineering major (Rebecca Valencia), Rubin simulated a two-week heat wave while monitoring soil temperature and moisture using water content and water potential sensors.  She also measured plant performance (height, leaf number and chlorophyll content) before, during, and after the event. Control plots had aluminum “dummy lamps” to account for shading.

Soil Microbes

An infrared photo, which is how Rachel determined that the heating footprint was evenly distributed on all the plants. The scale bar on the right is in degrees C.

Data obtained from soil sensors helped Rachel to measure heating treatment effects as well as rule out a potential cause for plant mortality: soil moisture. “Soil temperature was on average 10 degrees hotter in heated plots than control plots, but matric potential and soil water content were completely unaffected by heating. This tells us that the grasses died from reasons other than water stress– perhaps a top-kill effect.” Although growing concern over heat waves in agriculture is centered around accompanying droughts, this experiment demonstrates that heating can produce negative effects on some species even when water is in plentiful supply.

Next week:  Learn the results of Rachel’s experiments, some of the challenges the team faced, and the future of this research.

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The Tensiometer: 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.

tensiometer

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.

tensiometer

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.

Tensiometer

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.

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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 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.

Climate Change

An illustration of SEGA’s cyberinfrastructure 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.

Climate Change

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 disproportionate 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 Piñon Pine, Southwestern White Pine, and has a proposal to study Cottonwood in process.

Whipple says that models currently suggest that Piñon 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 Piñon survive. 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.”

Climate Change

Researchers documenting a Piñon Pine. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

In some of her research on Piñon 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?

Climate Change

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 data they need to make informed decisions about how to manage the land.

Climate Change

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 ensure 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

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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.

Green Roofs

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.

Green Roofs

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.

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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 Roofs

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.

Green Roofs

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 over a 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.

Green Roofs

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.

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Will Sample Disturbance Lead to Lower Accuracy?

Sampling soil for laboratory analysis of water potential is done for two basic reasons.  The simplest is to determine the current water potential of the soil.  The other is to determine the moisture release curve of the soil.  Regardless of the reason for measurement, the question of sample disturbance is important to ensure an accurate result.  Dr. Colin Campbell explains why:

sample disturbance

Soil is disturbed when it’s removed from its natural structure.

Water Potential and Pore Size:

In soil samples, the void spaces (pores) in between soil particles can be simplistically thought of as a system of capillary tubes, with a diameter determined by the size of the associated particles and their spatial association.  The smaller the size of those tubes, the more tightly water is going to be held because of the surface association.  

In a clay, water will be held more tightly than in a sand at the same water content because clay contains smaller pores and thus more surface area for the water to bind to. But, even sand can eventually dry to a point where there is only a thin film of water on its surfaces and water will be bound tightly.  In principle, the closer water is to a surface, the tighter it will be bound.

Sample Disturbance

Sample disturbance (disturbing soil pores when you remove a sample from the ground) becomes an issue depending on the water potential of your sample. Typically, the less negative (wetter) the water potential, the larger impact sample disturbance will have on the measurement.  We can do a calculation that shows there are specific pore sizes associated with specific water potentials (see table 1).

sample disturbance

If you disturb a sample with low water potential, permanent wilting point (-1.5 MPa) for example, the pores that are still filled with water would be approximately 0.2 um in diameter, far too small to be broken apart by scooping up a sample.  Thus, we could reasonably assume that your WP readings won’t be affected much.  But if you disturb soil with higher water potential, say field capacity (-0.033 MPa), it’s much more likely that water will be disturbed, as it fills pores to approximately 9 um.    

Hygrometers

Still, this is only an issue if you are attempting to measure in a high WP range.  If your chilled-mirror hygrometer only measures up to -1000 kPa, sample disturbance will not be an issue because those pores that will have broken will likely be larger than the sub-micrometer that are holding water, which is beyond the accuracy of your instrument.   However, some hygrometers can now measure to an upper limit of -100 kPa, which approaches the point where sample disturbance will make a difference.  

Tensiometers

If you are sampling to measure with a tensiometer (measures 0 kPa to -80kPa), it’s extremely important to keep your samples intact because tensiometers cover the emptying range of the largest pores found in soil.  A soil collar (sample ring) pounded into the ground will yield the most intact soil core.  It’s the best method to use if you need make sure soil pores remain undisturbed to yield an accurate water potential measurement.

For a more in-depth examination of the magnitude of the effects of sample disturbance, read this chilled-mirror hygrometer App Note detailing the subject.

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Screening for Drought Tolerance

Screening for drought tolerance in wheat species is harder than it seems.  Many greenhouse drought screenings suffer from confounding issues such as soil type and the resulting soil moisture content, bulk density, and genetic differences for traits like root mass, rooting depth, and plant size. In addition, because it’s so hard to isolate drought stress, some scientists think finding a repeatable screening method is next to impossible. However, a recent pilot study done by researcher Andrew Green may prove them wrong.

drought tolerance

Automatic Irrigation Setup

The Quest for Repeatability

Green says, “There have been attempts before of intensively studying drought stress, but it’s hard to isolate drought stress from heat, diseases, and other things.”  Green and his advisors, Dr. Gerard Kluitenberg and Dr. Allan Fritz, think monitoring water potential in the soil is the only quantifiable way to impose a consistent and repeatable treatment. With the development of a soil-moisture retention curve for a homogeneous growth media, they feel the moisture treatment could be maintained in order to isolate drought stress.  Green says, “Our goal is to develop a repeatable screening system that will allow us to be confident that what we’re seeing is an actual drought response before the work of integrating those genes takes place, since that’s a very long and tedious process.”

Why Hasn’t This Been Done Before?

Andrew Green, as a plant breeder, thinks the problem lies in the fact that most geneticists aren’t soil scientists. He says, “In past experiments, the most sophisticated drought screening was to grow the plants up to a certain point, stop watering them, and see which ones lived the longest. There’s never been a collaborative approach where physiologists and soil scientists have been involved.  So researchers have imposed this harsh, biologically irrelevant stress where it’s basically been an attrition study.” Green says he hopes in his research to use the soil as a feedback mechanism to maintain a stress level that mimics what exists in nature.

drought tolerance

Data Acquisition Cabinet setup for Green’s expanded experiment.

The Pilot Study

Green used volumetric water content sensors, matric potential sensors, as well as column tensiometers to monitor soil moisture conditions in a greenhouse experiment using 182 cm tall polyvinyl chloride (PVC) growth tubes and homogenous growth media. Measurements were taken four times a day to determine volumetric water content, soil water potential, senescence, biomass, shoot, root ratio, rooting traits, yield components, leaf water potential, leaf relative water content, and other physiological observations between moisture limited and control treatments.  

Soil Media:  Advantages and Disadvantages

To solve the problem of differing soil types, Andrew and his team chose a homogeneous soil amendment media called Profile Greens Grade, which has been extensively studied for use in space and other applications.  Green says, “It’s a very porous material with a large particle size.  It’s a great growth media because at the end of the experiment you can separate the roots of the plant from the soil media, and those roots can be measured, imaged, and studied in conjunction with the data that is collected.”   Green adds, however, that working with soil media isn’t perfect: there have been hydraulic conductivity issues, and the media must be closely monitored.

What’s Unique About this Study?

Green believes that because the substrate was very specific and his water content and water potential sensors were co-located, it allowed him to determine if all of his moisture release curves were consistent.  He says, “We try to pack these columns to a uniform bulk density and keep an eye on things when we’re watering, hoping it’s going to stay consistent at every depth.  So far it’s been working pretty well: the water content and the water potential are repeatable in the different columns.”

drought tolerance

Entire Irrigation setup for the expanded study.

Plans for the Future

Green’s pilot study was completed in the spring, and he’s getting ready for the expanded version of the project:  a replicated trial with wild relatives of wheat. He’s hoping to use soil moisture sensors to make automatic irrigation decisions: i.e. the water potential of the columns will activate twelve solenoid valves which will disperse water to keep the materials in their target stress zone, or ideal water potential.

The Ultimate Goal

The ultimate goal of Green’s research is to breed wild species of wheat into productive forms that can be used as farmer-grown varieties. He is optimistic about the results of his pilot study.  He says, “Based on the very small unreplicated data that we have so far, I think it is going to be possible to develop a repeatable method to screen these materials.  With the data that we’re seeing now, and the information that we’re capturing about what’s going on below ground, I think being able to hold these things in a biologically relevant stress zone is going to be possible.”

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Water Potential/Water Content:  When to Use Dual Measurements

In a previous post, we discussed water potential as a better indicator of plant stress than water content.  However, in most situations, it’s useful to take dual measurements and measure both water content and water potential.  In a recent email, one of our scientist colleagues explains why: “The earlier article on water potential was excellent.  But what should be added is an explanation that the intensity measurement doesn’t translate directly into the quantity of water stored or needed. That information is also required when managing water through irrigation.  This is why I really like the dual measurement approach. I am excited about the possibilities of information that can be gleaned from the combined set of water content, water potential, and spectral reflectance data.”

dual measurements

Potato field irrigation

Managing Irrigation

The value of combined data can be illustrated by what’s been happening at the Brigham Young University Turf Farm, where we’ve been trying to optimize irrigation of turfgrass (read about it here). As we were thinking about how to control irrigation, we decided the best way was to measure water potential.  However, because we were in a sandy soil where water was freely available, we also guessed we might need water content. Figure 1 illustrates why.

dual measurements

Figure 1: Turf farm data: water potential only

Early water potential data looks uninteresting; it tells us there’s plenty of water most of the time, but doesn’t indicate if we’re applying too much.  In addition, if we zoom in to times when water potential begins to change, we see that it reaches a stress condition quickly.  Within a couple of days, it is into the stress region and in danger of causing our grass to go into dormancy.  Water potential data is critical to be able to understand when we absolutely need to water again, but because the data doesn’t change until it’s almost too late, we don’t have everything we need.

dual measurements

Figure 2: Turf farm data, volumetric water content only

Unlike water potential, the water content data (Figure 2) are much more dynamic. The sensors not only show the subtle changes due to daily water uptake but also indicate how much water needs to be applied to maintain the root zone at an optimal level. However, with water content data alone, we don’t know where that optimal level is. For example, early in the season, we observe large changes in water content over four or five days and may assume, based upon onsite observations, that it’s time to irrigate. But, in reality, we know little about the availability of water to the plant. Thus, we need to put the two graphs together (Figure 3).

dual measurements

Figure 3: Turfgrass data: both water potential and volumetric water content together.

In Figure 3, we have the total picture of what’s going on in the soil at the BYU turf farm. We see the water content going down and can tell at what percentage the plants begin to stress.  We also see when we’ve got too much water: when the water content is well above where our water potential sensors start to sense plant stress. With this information, we can tell that the turfgrass has an optimal range of 12% to 17% volumetric water content. Anything below or above that range will be too little or too much water.  

dual measurements

Figure 4: Turfgrass soil moisture release curve (black). Other colors are examples of moisture release curves for different types of soil.

Dual measurements will also allow you to make in situ soil moisture release curves like the one above (Figure 4), which detail the relationship between water potential and water content.  Scientists can evaluate these curves and understand many things about the soil, such as hydraulic conductivity and total water availability.

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