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Data deep dive: why am I seeing diurnal changes in soil moisture?

In the video below, METER soil scientist Dr. Colin Campbell discusses an often-misdiagnosed water content signal that looks like typical diurnal temperature cycling but is actually due to a phenomenon called hydraulic redistribution. He shows how easily these patterns can be seen in ZENTRA Cloud data management software.

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Video transcript

Hello, my name is Colin Campbell. I’m a research scientist here at METER Group. And today we’re going to be digging into some water content data that I collected over the last summer. This is a field that’s planted in spring wheat, it’s about 700 meters across. And we’ve set up six measurement sites. At each one of these sites, we’re making several measurements, but the ones we’re going to talk about today are just water content. And while we’ve installed water content sensors at 15, 45, and 65 centimeters, we’re just going to focus on the 65-centimeter water content sensors. These sensors are the METER TEROS 12 soil moisture sensors, so they also measure electrical conductivity and temperature, and we’re going to look at temperature as well because that figures into this discussion. 

So this field was planted in April of 2019. And not a lot interesting goes on at the 65-centimeter depth through April, May, and June. But as we get into July, the wheat is reaching maturity, and they essentially are going to cut off the irrigation water here on July 22. So up to July 22, there’s really not a lot of movement in the water content. One of the sites decreases a little bit, but each line is flat. What I noticed as I was looking at this particular graph is after this long period of very flat data, after June 22 when the irrigation was cut off, we start to see some movement in the water content at this depth Not only is there movement down, but there’s a daily movement of the actual water content signals, all but this top light green line. And it made me wonder, what’s going on? 

Diurnal water content fluctuations are not always due to temperature.

Initially, whenever you see a diurnal movement, you suspect that it’s caused by temperature. It’s been said that every sensor is probably a temperature sensor first, and a sensor of whatever we’re really interested in second. In this case, we can look to see what the temperature is doing at that depth. Here’s soil temperature, at 65 centimeters, and even though there’s just a little bobble in the line, the line is almost completely flat. We see the seasonal trends in temperature, but really no diurnal temperature cycling. And this scale is also fairly small. So back to our 65-centimeter water content. If it’s not temperature that’s affecting these lines, then what is it? 

I’ve seen this before in an experiment that I did years ago in a non-irrigated wheat field. We were measuring down at  150 centimeters, and when the water had been used up in the upper levels of the soil profile, the roots of the wheat plant just simply went down to 150 centimeters and started taking water up. So this is what I assume is also happening here. The wheat has extended its roots down to 65 centimeters, since its irrigated wheat. That’s not too deep, but wheat doesn’t necessarily need to get its roots down super deep. And as the wheat accesses that water, we’re seeing these daily drops in water. But then we’re seeing just a slight increase in water. Here on July 28, we’re seeing that water go up slightly. And so why is this happening? We might understand how the water is being taken out of the soil, but why do we see a slight increase in the water content (just a few tenths of a percent)? 

What I think is happening, in this case, is that it’s not temperature, but actually, roots are growing down into this area, and they’re probably growing around the sensor. As we change from day to night, we see a release in the elasticity of the water in the xylem, and maybe just a little bit more water down in the roots as they’re the transpiration pull of the day is lessened and stops overnight. The stomates are closed, and we see just a little bit of water coming back into the roots and possibly into the soil. 

Now there was a big discussion many years ago about whether this was something called hydraulic lift where trees could take up water from deep in the soil profile and essentially give it back to plants near the surface. And although it was a great debate, it was never proven that this actually happened: water being spread from deeper locations to more shallow locations by roots. But this is probably hydraulic redistribution where we just have roots filling with water, and when they are filled, we see a little bit in the water content sensor.

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