Water has a dielectric of approximately 80, so if we assume that a dry soil has a dielectric of 5 (VWC = 0.00 m3/m3), then changes to the bulk dielectric read by the sensor will be attributable to changes in water content. If you read a METER sensor in air, which has a dielectric constant of 1, you will quite naturally get a negative number.
Improving accuracy of dielectric soil moisture sensors
There are two common causes for negative readings on a METER soil moisture sensor:
1) Poor contact with the soil resulting from improper installation or disturbance
Air gaps next to a sensor will contribute the lower dielectric of air to the measurement resulting in an underestimation of VWC. Air gaps can arise if enough care is not taken to pack soil around the sensor body to approximate native bulk density. Sensors that have been disturbed, such as having a cable tripped over, can also develop air gaps that can result in negative results in dry soils. (To reduce the possibility of air gaps when installing METER sensors, use the new TEROS borehole installation tool)
2) A calibration that is inappropriate for the soil in which the sensor is installed
If the standard mineral calibration is used, an error of ~ 3-4% can be expected in METER sensor readings. Negative numbers can be observed in oven-dry soils (by definition a VWC of 0.0 m3/m3) down to ~ – 0.02 m3/m3 with no malfunction of the sensor. The dielectric constant of the soil is assumed to be 5 and this is a valid assumption in the majority of soils of primarily mineral composition. If your soil has a different dielectric constant, such as can occur in soils with high organic matter content, then the uncertainty in your measurements will increase. This is not a large problem because METER sensors can be calibrated to match a given soil with very little investment in resources.
Want more details?
Watch our webinar titled Why Does My Sensor Read Negative below. This webinar is designed for those who use electromagnetic sensors (capacitance/TDR/FDR) to measure soil water content. Learn about the theory behind the measurements. Dr. Doug Cobos discusses:
What is volumetric water content?
Dielectric measurement theory basics
Dielectric mixing models
Why might a sensor read a negative VWC?
Can a sensor really have 2% VWC accuracy for all soils?
Sources of error in dielectric measurement methods
The deadline is fast approaching to apply for the 2019 Grant A. Harris Fellowship. The fellowship awards $10,000 in METER research instrumentation to six U.S. or Canadian graduate students studying any aspect of agricultural, environmental, or geotechnical science.
(Image source: https://vimeo.com/69136931)
Camila Tejo Haristoy, former University of Washington grad student, was a Grant A. Harris Fellowship winner. She used METER soil moisture and temperature sensors to study the water holding and temperature patterns of canopy soil in an old-growth Sitka Spruce forest in Washington state. Sitka Spruce tree crowns contain large accumulations of organic matter known as “canopy soil”. These accumulations provide substrate and habitat for a broad community of plants, insects, and other arboreal species. Using tree-climbing techniques, Camila installed soil moisture and temperature sensors in the canopy soils of spruce trees from an old-growth stand in the Olympic Peninsula, Washington.
This study characterized for the first time environmental conditions associated with soil mats within the crown of spruce trees, providing a framework for understanding the distribution and activity of epiphytic plants, nutrient dynamics, and associated canopy organisms.
Watch the documentary
Watch a fascinating 7-minute documentary of Camila’s interesting and exciting research. The documentary description: “Camila spends long rainy days climbing into treetops, taking temperature and moisture measurements, and collecting soil and plant samples. In the process, she interacts with a seldom seen, barely understood, and lushly beautiful environment.” (source https://vimeo.com/69136931)
When it comes to measuring soil moisture, site disturbance is inevitable. We may placate ourselves with the idea that soil sensors will tell us something about soil water even if a large amount of soil at the site has been disturbed. Or we might think it doesn’t matter if soil properties are changed around the sensor because the needles are inserted into undisturbed soil.
The key to reducing the impact of site disturbance on soil moisture data is to control the scale of the disturbance.
The fact is that site disturbance does matter, and there are ways to reduce its impact on soil moisture data. Below is an exploration of site disturbance and how researchers can adjust their installation techniques to fight uncertainty in their data.
Non-disturbance methods don’t measure up—yet
During a soil moisture sensor installation, it’s important to generate the least amount of soil disturbance possible in order to obtain a representative measurement. Non-disturbance methods do exist, such as satellite, ground-penetrating radar, and COSMOS. However, these methods face challenges that make them impractical as a single approach to water content. Satellite has a large footprint, but generally measures the top 5-10 cm of the soil, and the resolution and measurement frequency is low. Ground-penetrating radar has great resolution, but it’s expensive, and data interpretation is difficult when a lower boundary depth is unknown. COSMOS is a ground-based, non-invasive neutron method which measures continuously and reaches deeper than a satellite over an area up to 800 meters in diameter. But it is cost prohibitive in many applications and sensitive to both vegetation and soil, so researchers have to separate the two signals. These methods aren’t yet ready to displace soil moisture sensors, but they work well when used in tandem with the ground truth data that soil moisture sensors can provide.
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This week, guest author Dr. Michael Forster, of Edaphic Scientific Pty Ltd & The University of Queensland, writes about new research using irrigation curves as a novel technique for irrigation scheduling.
Growers do not have the time or resources to investigate optimal hydration for their crop. Thus, a new, rapid assessment is needed.
Measuring the hydration level of plants is a significant challenge for growers. Hydration is directly quantified via plant water potential or indirectly inferred via soil water potential. However, there is no universal point of dehydration with species and crop varieties showing varying tolerance to dryness. What is tolerable to one plant can be detrimental to another. Therefore, growers will benefit from any simple and rapid technique that can determine the dehydration point of their crop.
New research by scientists at Edaphic Scientific, an Australian-based scientific instrumentation company, and the University of Queensland, Australia, has found a technique that can simply and rapidly determine when a plant requires irrigation. The technique builds on the strong correlation between transpiration and plant water potential that is found across all plant species. However, new research applied this knowledge into a technique that is simple, rapid, and cost-effective, for growers to implement.
Current textbook knowledge of plant dehydration
The classic textbook values of plant hydration are field capacity and permanent wilting point, defined as -33 kPa (1/3 Bar) and -1500 kPa (15 Bar) respectively. It is widely recognized that there are considerable limitations with these general values. For example, the dehydration point for many crops is significantly less than 15 Bar.
Furthermore, values are only available for a limited number of widely planted crops. New crop varieties are constantly developed, and these may have varying dehydration points. There are also many crops that have no, or limited, research into their optimal hydration level. Lastly, textbook values are generated following years of intensive scientific research. Growers do not have the time, or resources, to completely investigate optimal hydration for their crop. Therefore, a new technique that provides a rapid assessment is required.
How stomatal conductance varies with water potential
There is a strong correlation between stomatal conductance and plant water potential: as plant water potential becomes more negative, stomatal conductance decreases. Some species are sensitive and show a rapid decrease in stomatal conductance; other species exhibit a slower decrease.
Plant physiologist refer to P50 as a value that clearly defines a species’ tolerance to dehydration. One definition of P50 is the plant water potential value at which stomatal conductance is 50% of its maximum rate. P50 is also defined as the point at which hydraulic conductance is 50% of its maximum rate. Klein (2014) summarized the relationship between stomatal conductance and plant water potential for 70 plant species (Figure 1). Klein’s research found that there is not a single P50 for all species, rather there is a broad spectrum of P50 values (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The relationship between stomatal conductance and leaf water potential for 70 plant species. The dashed red lines indicate the P80 and P50 values. The irrigation refill point can be determined where the dashed red lines intersect with the data on the graph. Image has been adapted from Klein (2014), Figure 1b.
Taking advantage of P50
The strong, and universal, relationship between stomatal conductance and water potential is vital information for growers. A stomatal conductance versus water potential relationship can be quickly, and easily, established by any grower for their specific crop. However, as growers need to maintain optimum plant hydration levels for growth and yield, the P50 value should not be used as this is too dry. Rather, research has shown a more appropriate value is possibly the P80 value. That is, the water potential value at the point that stomatal conductance is 80% of its maximum.
Irrigation Curves – a rapid assessment of plant hydration
Research by Edaphic Scientific and University of Queensland has established a technique that can rapidly determine the P80 value for plants. This is called an “Irrigation Curve” which is the relationship between stomatal conductance and hydration that indicates an optimal hydration point for a specific species or variety.
Once P80 is known, this becomes the set point at which plant hydration should not go beyond. For example, a P80 for leaf water potential may be -250 kPa. Therefore, when a plant approaches, or reaches, -250 kPa, then irrigation should commence.
P80 is also strongly correlated with soil water potential and, even, soil volumetric water content. Soil water potential and/or content sensors are affordable, easy to install and maintain, and can connect to automated irrigation systems. Therefore, establishing an Irrigation Curve with soil hydration levels, rather than plant water potential, may be more practical for growers.
Example irrigation curves
Irrigation curves were created for a citrus (Citrus sinensis) and macadamia (Macadamia integrifolia). Approximately 1.5m tall saplings were grown in pots with a potting mixture substrate. Stomatal conductance was measured daily, between 11am and 12pm, with an SC-1 Leaf Porometer. Soil water potential was measured by combining data from an MPS-6 (now called TEROS 21) Matric Potential Sensor and WP4 Dewpoint Potentiometer. Soil water content was measured with a GS3 Water Content, Temperature and EC Sensor. Data from the GS3 and MPS-6 sensors were recorded continuously at 15-minute intervals on an Em50 Data Logger. When stomatal conductance was measured, soil water content and potential were noted. At the start of the measurement period, plants were watered beyond field capacity. No further irrigation was applied, and the plants were left to reach wilting point over subsequent days.
Figure 2. Irrigation Curves for citrus and macadamia based on soil water potential measurements. The dashed red line indicates P80 value for citrus (-386 kPa) and macadamia (-58 kPa).
Figure 2 displays the soil water potential Irrigation Curves, with a fitted regression line, for citrus and macadamia. The P80 values are highlighted in Figure 2 by a dashed red line. P80 was -386 kPa and -58 kPa for citrus and macadamia, respectively. Figure 3 shows the results for the soil water content Irrigation Curves where P80 was 13.2 % and 21.7 % for citrus and macadamia, respectively.
Figure 3. Irrigation Curves for citrus and macadamia based on soil volumetric water content measurements. The dashed red line indicates P80 value for citrus (13.2 %) and macadamia (21.7 %).
From these results, a grower should consider maintaining soil moisture (i.e. hydration) above these values as they can be considered the refill points for irrigation scheduling.
Further research is required
Preliminary research has shown that an Irrigation Curve can be successfully established for any plant species with soil water content and water potential sensors. Ongoing research is currently determining the variability of generating an Irrigation Curve with soil water potential or content. Other ongoing research includes determining the effect of using a P80 value on growth and yield versus other methods of establishing a refill point. At this stage, it is unclear whether there is a single P80 value for the entire growing season, or whether P80 shifts depending on growth or fruiting stage. Further research is also required to determine how P80 affects plants during extreme weather events such as heatwaves. Other ideas are also being investigated.
For more information on Irrigation Curves, or to become involved, please contact Dr. Michael Forster: firstname.lastname@example.org
Klein, T. (2014). The variability of stomatal sensitivity to leaf water potential across tree species indicates a continuum between isohydric and anisohydric behaviours. Functional Ecology, 28, 1313-1320. doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.12289
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