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Best Research Instrument Hacks

We wanted to highlight innovative ways people have modified their instrumentation to fit their research needs.  Here, Georg von Unold, founder and president of UMS (now METER) illustrates ingenuity in a story that inspired the invention of the first UMS tensiometer and what could be one of the greatest scientific instrument hacks of all time.

Instrument hacks

The Bavarian Alps

An Early Penchant for Ingenuity

In 1986, graduating German students were required to join the military or perform civil service.  Von Unold chose to do a civil service project investigating tree mortality in the alpine region of the Bavarian Mountains.  He explains, “We were trying to understand pine tree water stress in a forest decline study related to storms in certain altitudes where trees were inexplicably falling over. The hypothesis was that changing precipitation patterns had induced water stress.”  

To investigate the problem, von Unold’s research team needed to find tensiometers that could measure the water stress of plants in the soil, which was not easy. The tensiometers von Unold found were not able to reach the required water potential without cavitating, so he decided to design a new type of tensiometer.  He says, “I showed my former boss the critical points. It must be glued perfectly, the ceramic needed defined porosity, a reliable air reference access, and water protection of the pressure transducer. I explained it with a transparent acrylic glass prototype to make it easier to understand. At a certain point, my boss said, “Okay, please stop. I don’t understand much about these things, but you can make those on your own.”

Instrument hacks

Two snorkels protected a data logger predecessor from relative humidity.

Snorkels Solve a Research Crisis

The research team used those tensiometers (along with other chemical and microbial monitoring) to investigate why trees only in the precise altitude of 800 to 1100 meters were dying. One challenge facing the team was that they didn’t have access to anything we might call a data logger today.  Von Unold says, “We did have a big process machine from Schlumberger that could record the sensors, but it wasn’t designed to be placed in alpine regions where maximum winter temperatures reached -30℃ or below. We had to figure out how to protect this extremely expensive machine, which back then cost more than my annual salary.“

Von Unold’s advisor let him use the machine, cautioning him that the humidity it was exposed to could not exceed 80%, and the temperature must not fall below 0℃.  As von Unold pondered how to do this, he had an idea. Since the forest floor often accumulated more than a meter of snow, he designed an aluminum box with two snorkels that would reach above the snow.  The snorkels were guided to a height of two meters.  Using these air vents, he sucked a small amount of cold, dry air into the box. Then, he took his mother’s hot iron, bought a terminal switch to replace the existing one (so it turned on in the range of 0-30℃), and mounted a large aluminum plate on the iron’s metal plate to better distribute the heat.

Von Unold says, “Pulling in the outside air and heating it worked well. The simple technique reduced the relative humidity and controlled the temperature inside the box. Looking back, we were fortunate there wasn’t condensing water and that we’d selected a proper fan and hot iron. We didn’t succeed entirely, as on hot summer days it was a bit moist inside the box, but luckily, the circuit boards took no damage.”

Instrument hacks

Tree mortality factors were only found at the precise altitude where fog accumulated.

Finding Answers

Interestingly, the research team discovered there was more to the forest decline story than they thought. Fog interception in this range was extremely high, and when it condensed on the needles, the trees absorbed more than moisture.  Von Unold explains, “In those days people of the Czech Republic and former East Germany burned a lot of brown coal for heat. The high load of sulfur dioxide from the coal reduced frost resistivity and damaged the strength of the trees, producing water stress.  These combined factors were only found at the precise altitude where the fog accumulated, and the weakened trees were no match for the intense storms that are sometimes found in the Alps.”  Von Unold says once the East German countries became more industrialized, the problem resolved itself because the people stopped burning brown coal.

Share Your Hacks with Us

Do you have an instrument hack that might benefit other scientists?  Send your idea to kcampbell@metergroup.com.

Piñon Pine: Studying the Effects of Climate Change on Drought Tolerance

In the name of science, Henry Adams has killed a lot of trees. Adams, a PhD student at the University of Arizona, is studying the effect of climate change and drought on Piñon Pines. The Piñon Pine, a conifer with an extensive root system, grows at high elevations in the Southwest. Its root system makes the Piñon Pine remarkably drought tolerant, but in 2002- 03, an extended drought in combination with a bark beetle outbreak killed 12,000 hectares of the trees. It was a 100 year drought, the driest period on record, and interestingly it coincided with temperatures 2 to 3˚C above recorded averages.

Piñon Pine

Biosphere 2. Image: wickipedia.org.

Research in Biosphere 2

Adams and his advisors wondered if increasing temperatures due to climate change might exacerbate the effects of drought and accelerate tree die-off. The University of Arizona has an unusual opportunity to test drought conditions and temperature change in its Biosphere 2 lab. Biosphere 2, a unique 3-acre enclosed “living laboratory” in the high Arizona desert, once hosted 8 people for two years of self-contained survival living. Now it hosts research projects, and Adams was able to use space inside to induce drought in two separate treatments of transplanted Piñon pines, one at ambient temperatures and one at temperatures 4˚C above ambient.

Sobering Outlook for the Piñon Pine

“Obviously, the warmer trees should die first,” says Adams. “But we want to test whether temperature change, independent of other factors, accelerates mortality.” If that acceleration in fact occurs, a shorter drought, the kind the Piñon Pine has historically been able to wait out, might cause a significant die-off.

Piñon Pine

Piñon Pine. Image: Naturesongs.com

Measuring Drought Response

Naturally, Adams and his colleagues did more than just watch how fast trees would die without water. They also studied the trees physiological response to drought, measuring gas exchange, water potential, and stomatal conductance. To measure stomatal conductance, they used a leaf porometer, making almost 9,000 separate measurements in sessions that lasted from sunup to sundown on one very long day once each week.

Stomatal Conductance in Conifers

There isn’t much guidance in the porometer manual for people who want to use it on conifers, so Adams “played around with it a little bit” on non-drought stressed trees before he started his study. He found that the best way to get good readings was to cover the aperture with a single layer of needles. “Needles are this three-dimensional thing,” he explains. “They have stomata on several sides, depending on the species. If you imagine that the fingers on your hand are needles sticking up from a branch, we just took those and pushed them together to make sure that there was just a one needle thick covering over the aperture. If you spread your fingers, that’s what it would be like if you didn’t totally cover the aperture-then you underestimate the conductance. We also found that if we stuck several layers in there, we could drive the conductance number up.

Next week: Find out how the researchers made comparisons at leaf level, transplanted the trees, and future implications for the Piñon Pine.

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German Researchers Directly Measure Climate Change Effects Using Lysimeter Network (part 2)

In Germany, scientists are measuring the effects of tomorrow’s climate change with a vast network of 144 large lysimeters (see part 1).  This week, read about the intense precision required to move the soil-filled lysimeters, how problems are prevented, and how the data is used by scientists worldwide.

climate change

Moving the lysimeters

Moving the Lysimeters is not Easy

As noted previously, one TERENO lysimeter weighs between 2.5 and 3.5 tons depending on the soil and the water saturation, so the problem of transporting it without compacting the soil or causing cracks in the soil column caused Georg many sleepless nights.   He explains, “We found a truck with an air venting system, which could prevent vibrations in a wide range. We made a wooden support structure, bought 100 car springs, and loaded the lysimeter on this frame.  After some careful preparation and design adjustments, I told the truck driver, ‘take care, I’m recording the entire drive with my acceleration sensor and data logger so I can see if you are driving faster than I allow.”  Each lysimeter soil surface level was marked to check if the lysimeter was rendered useless due to transport, and the truck was not allowed to go over a railway or a bump in the road faster than 2 km per hour to avoid the consequences of compaction and cracking.

climate change

Tensiometers and soil moisture sensors monitor the hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters.

Preventing Problems

Understanding the water potential inside the intact lysimeter core is not trivial. Georg and his team use maintenance-free tensiometers, which overcome the typical problem of cavitation in dry conditions as they don’t need to be refilled. Still, this parameter is so critical they installed 3 of them and took the median, which can be weighed in case one of the sensors is not working. Georg says, “There is a robust algorithm behind measuring the true field situation with tensiometers.”

What Happens With the Data?

Georg hopes that many researchers will take advantage of the TERENO lysimeter network data (about 4,000 parameters stored near-continuously on a web server). He says, “Researchers have free access to the data and can publish it. It’s wonderful because it’s not only the biggest project of its kind, each site is well-maintained, and all measurements are made with the same equipment, so you can compare all the data.”  (Contact Dr. Thomas Puetz for access). Right now, over 400 researchers are working with those data, which has been used in over 200 papers.

climate change

Lysimeter plant with CO2 fumigation facility in Austria.

What’s the Future?

Georg thinks 40,000 data points arriving every minute will give scientists plenty of information to work on for years to come. Each year, more TERENO standard lysimeters are installed to enlarge the database. The ones in TERENO have a 1 m2 surface area, which is fine for smaller plants like wheat or grass, but is not a good dimension for big plants like trees and shrubs. Georg points out that you have to take into account effort versus good data. Larger lysimeters present exponentially larger challenges. He admits that, “With the TERENO project, they had to make a compromise. All the lysimeters are cut at a depth of 1.5 m. If there is a mistake, it is the same with all the lysimeters, so we can compare on climate change effects.”  He adds, “After six years, we now have a standard TERENO lysimeter design installed over 200 times around the world, where data can be compared through a database, enhancing our understanding of water in an era of climate change.”

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Read about 12 large Ecotron weighing lysimeters measuring climate change at the University of Hasselt.

German Researchers Directly Measure Climate Change Effects Using TERENO Lysimeters

In Germany, scientists are measuring the effects of tomorrow’s climate change with a vast network of 144 large lysimeters.

lysimeters

The goal of these lysimeters is to measure energy balance, water flux and nutrition transport, emission of greenhouse gases, biodiversity, and solute leaching into the groundwater.

In 2008, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology began to develop a climate feedback monitoring strategy at the Ammer catchment in Southern Bavaria. In 2009, the Research Centre Juelich Institute of Agrosphere, in partnership with the Helmholtz-Network TERENO (Terrestrial Environmental Observatories) began conducting experiments in an expanded approach.  

Throughout Germany, they set up a network of 144 large lysimeters with soil columns from various climatic conditions at sites where climate change may have the largest impact.  In order to directly observe the effects of simulated climate change, soil columns were taken from higher altitudes with lower temperatures to sites at a lower altitude with higher temperatures and vice versa. Extreme events such as heavy rain or intense drought were also experimentally simulated.

lysimeters

Lysimeter locations in Germany

Georg von Unold, whose company (formerly UMS, now METER) built and installed the lysimeters comments on why the project is so important. “From a scientific perspective, we accept changes for whatever reason they may happen, but it is our responsibility to carefully monitor and predict how these changes cause floods, droughts, and disease. We need to be prepared to react if and before they affect us.”

How Big Are the Lysimeters?

Georg says that each lysimeter holds approximately 3,000 kilograms of soil and has to be moved under compaction control with specialized truck techniques.  He adds,The goal of these lysimeters is to measure energy balance, water flux and nutrition transport, emission of greenhouse gases, biodiversity, and solute leaching into the groundwater. Researchers measure the conditions of water balance in the natural soil surrounding the lysimeters, and then apply those same conditions inside the lysimeters with suction ceramic cups that lay across the bottom of the lysimeter.  These cups both inject and take out water to mimic natural or artificial conditions.”

lysimeters

Researchers use water content sensors and tensiometers to monitor hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters.

Researchers monitor the new climate situation with microenvironment monitors and count the various grass species to see which types become dominant and which might disappear. They use water content sensors and tensiometers to monitor hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters. The systems also use a newly-designed system to inject CO2 into the atmosphere around the plants and soil to study increased carbon effects.  Georg says, “We developed, in cooperation with the HBLFA Raumberg Gumpenstein, a new, fast-responding CO2 enrichment system to study CO2 from plants and soil respiration. We analyze gases like CO2, oxygen, and methane. The chambers are rotated from one lysimeter to another, working 24 hours, 7 days a week.  Each lysimeter is exposed only for a few minutes so as not to change the natural environment.”

Next week:  Read about the intense precision required to move the soil-filled lysimeters, how problems are prevented, and how the data is used by scientists worldwide.

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Secrets of Water Potential: Learn the Science Behind the Measurement

This month in a 3 part series, we will explore water potential —the science behind it and how to measure it effectively.

water potential

To understand water potential, compare the water in a soil sample to water in a drinking glass.

Water Potential: a Definition

Read the article here…

 

Next week learn about the four components of water potential—osmotic potential, gravitational potential, matric potential, and pressure potential.

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Is Average Relative Humidity A Meaningless Measurement? (Part II)

Scientists often misunderstand average relative humidity (see part I).  In fact, it’s not uncommon to encounter average relative humidity being misused in scientific literature.  This week, learn which measurement should be used instead.

Average Relative Humidity

Humid conditions in a pine forest.

What is Wrong with Average Relative Humidity?

We often use average values to illustrate the behavior of parameters over time.  One of the most common is air temperature, where we effectively graph average half-hourly temperature across a day or daily temperature across a year to show important details about the environment. But, consider what average relative humidity would look like.  

As noted above, a general rule, though not consistent everywhere, is that the temperature at night cools down to the point where the air is saturated and the relative humidity is 100% (1).  During the day, depending on the climate and weather, the saturated vapor pressure may increase roughly two to five times ea and relative humidity would be between 0.2 to 0.5. If we calculated an average for the day, it would most likely be between 0.6 and 0.75, no matter what environment was being measured.  Of course, if it were raining or in the winter with low incoming radiation, this would be higher.  Still, it is easy to see that an average relative humidity does not do much to define meteorological conditions.  

Image: Britannica.com/

The title of this chart is misleading because they were not averaging across the day, but only daily at noon. Image: Britannica.com/

What Should We Use Instead?

The measurement that should be reported is vapor pressure. Not only is it independent of temperature, but it can also be effectively averaged over time to show ecosystem behavior.  However, this value will not be helpful to scientists who are identifying the pull generated by the atmosphere for water vapor in the plant or soil. This quantity is called vapor deficit and is calculated by taking the difference between the saturation vapor pressure and ea.

boy-drinking-from-bottle-738210_640 (1)

We sense water deficit in the atmosphere through our skin.

As humans, we intuitively sense the deficit when we feel that the atmosphere is dry through drying of our lips or our skin.  The same is true for plants. The dry atmosphere will exert a higher pull on the water, pulling it out through the leaves.  The higher the difference between the vapor pressure and the saturation vapor pressure, the more pull for water. Although sometimes reported in literature, the most common use for vapor pressure is as a standard input to evapotranspiration models like FAO56 or Penman-Monteith.

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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?

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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Irrigation and Climate Impacts to the Water-Energy Balance of the WI Central Sands (Part I)

Due to controversy over the growing number of high capacity wells in the Wisconsin Central Sands, University of Wisconsin PhD student, Mallika Nocco, is researching how agricultural land use, irrigation, and climate change impact the region’s water-energy balance.  She and her team have uncovered some surprising results.

irrigation

A class 1 trout stream has sufficient natural reproduction to sustain populations of wild trout at or near carry capacity.

Water Use Debate

There are class 1 trout streams in the Central Sands region, and some people worry that the increasing number of high capacity wells used for agriculture will reduce the water levels in those streams.  “Lake Huron has lost about 11 feet of water since 2000,” says one resident of the Central Sands area, “and water levels are continuing to drop.” In 2008, the small well he used to pump drinking water went dry, and he blames the high capacity wells.” (Aljazeera America)  On the other side of the debate, agriculture irrigated by these wells is extremely valuable to the state, and growers have taken quite a bit of time to understand the water cycle and their role in it. You can read about their water management goals and accomplishments here.

Updating Former Research

Irrigated agriculture wasn’t prevalent or profitable in the Wisconsin Central Sands until groundwater irrigation with high capacity wells became feasible in the 1950s.  Since then, this relatively small ecological region has gone from 60 high capacity wells in 1960 to over 2,500 today.

Mallika Nocco is studying potential groundwater recharge from irrigated cropping systems that use the wells, hoping to understand if the irrigation water is lost or returned to the groundwater.  She says, “Until now, we’ve been relying on models validated by two lysimeters in the 1970s. Champ Tanner (one of the fathers of environmental biophysics) designed the weighing lysimeters, and they were very accurate, but we wanted to do a larger scale study with multiple crops to get a handle on interannual variability and to improve our understanding of recharge in the region so we can do a better job of managing irrigation and groundwater.”

irrigation

Lysimeter installation into actively managed fields presented challenges that the research team had to overcome.

Measuring Recharge

Nocco used twenty-five drain gauge lysimeters to capture vadose zone flux under potato and maize cropping systems.  She monitored soil water (and temperature) flux by stratifying water content sensors from the soil surface to a depth of 1.4 meters.  She also estimated evapotranspiration (ET) using a porometer to measure stomatal conductance, in addition to obtaining micrometeorology, leaf area index, and gas exchange measurements.

Nocco and her team had to put their sensors in to avoid cultivation, so they extended the drain gauge PVC that comes up to the soil surface and removed it any time there was major fieldwork, whether it was tillage or planting, so that the area over the lysimeter got the same treatment as the rest of the agricultural fields.

Below the Root Zone

Nocco says getting the lysimeters below the root zone was a challenge.  Next week, read about how she solved that challenge, how she used a GPS system to find the lysimeters within a half-inch of accuracy, and about her surprising conclusions.

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Predicting the Stability of Rangeland Productivity to Climate Change

Dr. Lauren Hallett, researcher at  the University of California, Berkeley, recently conducted a study testing the importance of compensatory dynamics on forage stability in an experimental field setting where she manipulated rainfall availability and species interactions. She wanted to understand how climate variability affected patterns of species tradeoff in grasslands over time and how those tradeoffs affected the stability of things like forage production across changing rainfall conditions.

climate

Species tradeoffs could help mitigate the negative effects of climate variability on overall forage production.

Species Tradeoff

A key mechanism that can lead to stability in forage production is compensatory dynamics, in which the responses of different species  to climate fluctuations result in tradeoffs between functional groups over time. These tradeoffs could help mitigate the negative effects of climate variability on overall forage production.  Dr. Hallett comments, “In California grasslands, there’s a pattern that is part of rangeland dogma, that in dry years you have more forbs, and in wet years you have more grasses. I wondered if you could manage the system so that both forbs and grasses are present in the seed bank, able to respond to climate.  This would perhaps buffer community properties, like soil cover for erosion control and forage production in terms of biomass, from the effects of climate variability.”

climate

In areas experiencing moderate grazing, there was a strong species tradeoff between grasses and forbs.

Manipulating Species Composition

Dr. Hallett capitalized on the pre-existing grazing manipulation that her lab had done over the previous four years.  The grazing she replicated for this study was experimentally controlled, making it easier to ensure consistency.  She built rainout shelters where she collected the water and applied it to dry versus wet plots.  She also manipulated species composition, allowing only grasses, only forbs, or a mix of the two.  These treatments allowed her to study changes in cover and biomass.

Hallett used soil moisture probes and data loggers to characterize the treatment effects of this experiment and to parameterize models that predict rangeland response to climate change.  She says, “I wanted to verify that my rainfall treatments were getting a really strong soil moisture dynamic, and I found the shelters and the irrigation worked really well.”  Along with above-ground vegetation, she collected soil cores and looked at nutrient differences in conjunction with soil moisture.  Since her field site is located within the Sierra Foothills Research and Extension Center, Dr. Hallett was able to rely on precipitation data that was already measured on-site.  

Results

Dr. Hallett found that in areas experiencing moderate grazing, there was a strong species tradeoff between grasses and forbs.  She comments, “I had a seedbank that had both functional groups represented, and those tradeoffs did a lot to stabilize cover over time.”

When Dr. Hallett replicated the experiment in an area that had a history of low grazing, she found that the proportion of forbs wasn’t as high in the seedbank.  As a consequence, there was a major loss of cover in the dry plots.  She explains, “When the grass died, there weren’t many forbs to replace it, and you ended up with a lot of bare ground. The areas that were lightly grazed had more litter, so initially, the soil moisture was okay, but as the season progressed into a dry condition and the litter decomposed, there wasn’t enough new vegetation to stabilize the soil.”  As a result, Dr. Hallett thinks in low-grazed areas it’s important to have an intermediate level of litter. She says, “You need enough litter to increase soil moisture, but not so much that it would suppress germination of the forbs because as the season progresses and gets really dry, if you don’t have forbs in the system, you lose a lot of ground cover.”

Surprises Lead to A New Study

Dr. Hallett was surprised that within her three treatments there seemed to be differences in when the functional groups were drying down the soil.  This inspired new questions, leading her to use her dissertation data to generate a larger grant through the USDA.  Her new study will perform extensive rainfall manipulations to measure the effects of early-season versus late-season dryout, and vary species within those parameters.  She says, “One of the reasons you have grass years versus forb years is the timing of rainfall.  For instance, if you have a really dry fall, you tend to have more forbs because their seedlings are more drought resistant.  Conversely, if you have a wet fall, you tend to see more grasses because you have continual germination throughout the season. So, the timing of rainfall matters in terms of what species are in the system.  We are going to look at the coupling between the species that gets selected for the fall versus what would be able to grow well in the spring, and we will be studying how that affects a whole range of things such as ground cover, above-ground production for forage, below-ground investment of different functional groups, and how these things might relate to nutrient cycling and carbon storage.”

You can read more about Dr. Hallett’s rangeland research and her current projects here.  

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