Water potential is the most fundamental and essential measurement in soil physics because it describes the force that drives water movement.
Water potential helps researchers determine how much water is available to plants.
Making good water potential measurements is largely a function of choosing the right instrument and using it skillfully. In an ideal world, there would be one instrument that simply and accurately measured water potential over its entire range from wet to dry. In the real world, there is an assortment of instruments, each with its unique personality. Each has its quirks, advantages, and disadvantages. Each has a well-defined range.
Below is a comparison of water potential instruments and the ranges they measure.
A comparison of water potential instrument ranges
To learn more about measuring water potential, see the articles or videos below:
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In the conclusion of our 3-part water potential series (see part 1), we discuss how to measure water potential—different methods, their strengths, and their limitations.
Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range.
How to measure water potential
Essentially, there are only two primary measurement methods for water potential—tensiometers and vapor pressure methods. Tensiometers work in the wet range—special tensiometers that retard the boiling point of water (UMS) have a range from 0 to about -0.2 MPa. Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range—from about -0.1 MPa to -300 MPa (0.1 MPa is 99.93% RH; -300 MPa is 11%).
Historically, these ranges did not overlap, but recent advances in tensiometer and temperature sensing technology have changed that. Now, a skilled user with excellent methods and the best equipment can measure the full water potential range in the lab.
There are reasons to look at secondary measurement methods, though. Vapor pressure methods are not useful in situ, and the accuracy of the tensiometer must be paid for with constant, careful maintenance (although a self-filling version of the tensiometer is available).
Here, we briefly cover the strengths and limitations of each method.
Vapor Pressure Methods:
The WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer is one of the few commercially available instruments that currently uses this technique. Like traditional thermocouple psychrometers, the dew point hygrometer equilibrates a sample in a sealed chamber.
WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer
A small mirror in the chamber is chilled until dew just starts to form on it. At the dew point, the WP4C measures both mirror and sample temperatures with 0.001◦C accuracy to determine the relative humidity of the vapor above the sample.
The most current version of this dew point hygrometer has an accuracy of ±1% from -5 to -300 MPa and is also relatively easy to use. Many sample types can be analyzed in five to ten minutes, although wet samples take longer.
At high water potentials, the temperature differences between saturated vapor pressure and the vapor pressure inside the sample chamber become vanishingly small.
Limitations to the resolution of the temperature measurement mean that vapor pressure methods will probably never supplant tensiometers.
The dew point hygrometer has a range of -0.1 to -300 MPa, though readings can be made beyond -0.1 MPa using special techniques. Tensiometers remain the best option for readings in the 0 to-0.1 MPa range.
Water content tends to be easier to measure than water potential, and since the two values are related, it’s possible to use a water content measurement to find water potential.
A graph showing how water potential changes as water is adsorbed into and desorbed from a specific soil matrix is called a moisture characteristic or a moisture release curve.
Example of a moisture release curve.
Every matrix that can hold water has a unique moisture characteristic, as unique and distinctive as a fingerprint. In soils, even small differences in composition and texture have a significant effect on the moisture characteristic.
Some researchers develop a moisture characteristic for a specific soil type and use that characteristic to determine water potential from water content readings. Matric potential sensors take a simpler approach by taking advantage of the second law of thermodynamics.
Matric Potential Sensors
Matric potential sensors use a porous material with known moisture characteristic. Because all energy systems tend toward equilibrium, the porous material will come to water potential equilibrium with the soil around it.
Using the moisture characteristic for the porous material, you can then measure the water content of the porous material and determine the water potential of both the porous material and the surrounding soil. Matric potential sensors use a variety of porous materials and several different methods for determining water content.
Accuracy Depends on Custom Calibration
At its best, matric potential sensors have good but not excellent accuracy. At its worst, the method can only tell you whether the soil is getting wetter or drier. A sensor’s accuracy depends on the quality of the moisture characteristic developed for the porous material and the uniformity of the material used. For good accuracy, the specific material used should be calibrated using a primary measurement method. The sensitivity of this method depends on how fast water content changes as water potential changes. Precision is determined by the quality of the moisture content measurement.
Accuracy can also be affected by temperature sensitivity. This method relies on isothermal conditions, which can be difficult to achieve. Differences in temperature between the sensor and the soil can cause significant errors.
All matric potential sensors are limited by hydraulic conductivity: as the soil gets drier, the porous material takes longer to equilibrate. The change in water content also becomes small and difficult to measure. On the wet end, the sensor’s range is limited by the air entry potential of the porous material being used.
Tensiometers and Traditional Methods
Read about the strengths and limitations of tensiometers and other traditional methods such as gypsum blocks, pressure plates, and filter paper here.
Choose the right water potential sensor
Dr. Colin Campbell’s webinar “Water Potential 201: Choosing the Right Instrument” covers water potential instrument theory, including the challenges of measuring water potential and how to choose and use various water potential instruments.
In the second part of this month’s water potential series (see part 1), we discuss the separate components of a water potential measurement. The total water potential is the sum of four components: matric potential, osmotic potential, gravitational potential, and pressure potential. This article gives a description of each component. Read the article here…
In Italy, on January of 2014, one of the Secchia river leveesfailed, causing millions of dollars in flood damage and two fatalities. Concerned withpreventing similar disasters, scientists and geotechnical engineers are using soil sensors to investigate solutions in a project called, INFRASAFE (Intelligent monitoring for safe infrastructures) funded by the Emilia Romagna Region (Italy) on European Funds.
Professor Alberto Lamberti, Professor Guido Gottardi, Department of Civil, Chemical, Environmental, and Materials Engineering, University of Bologna, along with Prof. Marco Bittelli, University of Bologna professor of Soil and Environmental Physics, installed soil sensors along some transects of the Secchia river to monitor water potential and piezometric pressure. They want to study properties of the compacted levee “soil”, during intense flooding. Bittelli comments, “Rainfall patterns are changing due to climate change, and we are seeing more intense floods. There is a concern about monitoring levees so that we can, through studying the process, eventually create a warning system.”
Trench for burying sensor cables.
What Are The Levees Made Of?
Amazingly, some of these levees are very old, built at the beginning of the second millennium to protect the Secchia valley population from floods. “These rudimentary barrages were the starting point of the huge undertakings, aiming at the regulation and stabilization of the river, which were gradually developed and expanded in the following centuries…building up a continuous chain all along the river.” (Marchii et. al., 1995)
Vegetation in the Secchia River floodplain.
Unlike natural soil with horizons, the soil that makes up the levees is made up of extremely compact clay and other materials, which will pose challenges to the research team in terms of sensor installation. The team will use soil sensors to determine when the compacted material that makes up the levees gets so saturated it becomes weak. Bittelli says, “We are looking at the mechanical properties of the levees, but mechanical properties are strongly dependent on hydraulic properties, particularly soil water potential (or soil suction). A change in water potential changes the mechanical properties and weakens the structure.” This can happen either when a soil dries below an optimal limit or wets above it; the result is a weakened barrier that can fail under load.
Here the team uses an installation tool to install water content sensors.
Soil Sensors Present Installation Challenges
To solve the installation problems, the team will use a specialized installation tool to insert their water content sensors. Bittelli says, “Our main challenge is to install sensors deep into the levees without disturbing the soil too much. It’s very important to have this tool because clearly, we cannot dig out a levee; we might be the instigator of a flood. So it was necessary for us to be able to install the sensors in a relatively small borehole.” The researchers will install the sensors farther down than the current tool allows, so they are modifying it to go down to eight or ten meters. Bittelli explains, “We used a prototype installation tool which is two meters long. We modified it in the shop and extended it to six meters to be able to install water content sensors at further depths.”
Another challenge facing the research team is how to install water potential sensors without disturbing the levee. Marco explains, “We placed an MPS-6 (now called TEROS 21) into a cylinder of local soil prepared in the lab. A sort of a muffin made of soil with an MPS-6 inside. Then we lowered the cylinder into the borehole, installed the sensor inside, and then slid it down into the hole. Our goal is to try and keep the structure of the soil intact. Since the cylinder is made of the same local soil, and it is in good contact with the borehole walls, hydraulic continuity will be established.”
Researchers placed an MPS-6 into a cylinder of local soil prepared in the lab.
Unlike installing water content sensors, matric potential sensors don’t need to be installed in undisturbed soil but only require good contact between the sensor and the bulk soil so liquid water can easily equilibrate between the two. The researchers are also contemplating using a small camera with a light so they can see from above if the installation is successful.
Find Out More
The researchers will collect data at two experimental stations, one on the Po river, and one on the Secchia River. So far, the first installation was successfully performed, and data are collected from the website. Bitteli says the first installation included water content, temperature, and electrical conductivity sensors, water potential sensors, and tensiometers connected to a wireless network that will transmit all the data to a central office for analysis.
You can read more about this project and how it’s progressing here.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Thirty years ago, in Costa Rica’sPalo Verde National Park, the wetlands flooded regularly and eco-tourists could view thousands of waterfowl. Today, invasive cattail plants cover portions of the wetland which has subsequently dried up and become colonized by hardwoods. Consequently, the number of birds has fallen dramatically.
Some people blame the dams built in the 1970s which introduced hydrological power and created a large irrigation district in the remote region. Dr. Rafael Muñoz-Carpena, Professor and University of Florida Water Institute Faculty Fellow and his research team are performing environmental studies on the wetlands, trying to unravel the effects of the dams and how to revert some of the damage. Rafael explains, “We have a situation where modern engineering brought about social improvements, helpful renewable resources, and irrigation for abundant food production. But the resulting environmental degradation threatens a natural region in a country that depends on eco-tourism.”
“A vast network of mangrove-rich swamp, lagoons, marshes, grassland, limestone outcrops, and forests comprise the 32,266 acre Palo Verde National Park.” (Image and text: anywherecostarica.com)
Are The Dams Responsible?
Dr. Muñoz-Carpena says because of lack of historical data it’s difficult to untangle and separate all the factors that have caused the environmental degradation. He adds, “Thirty years ago Palo Verde National Park was part of a large wetland system which was important to all of Central America because it contained many endangered species and was a wintering ground for migratory birds from North America.The Palo Verde field station on the edge of the wetland, operated by theOrganization of Tropical Studies (OTS), attracted birdwatchers and wetland scientists from all over the world.”
In the 1970’s, with international funding, a dam was built in the mountains to collect water from the humid side of Costa Rica in order to generate hydroelectric power. It was clean, abundant, and strategically important. With the water transferred to the dry side of the country, a large irrigation district was created to not only produce important crops to the region like rice and beans, but to distribute the land among small parcel settlers.
Over the years, however, the wetland area slowly degraded to the point where its Ramsar Convention wetland classification is under question. Rafael says that understanding the causes of the degradation, the impacts of the human system, and how the natural and human systems are linked, is the big question of his research, and there are many factors to consider. “The release of the water, ground and surface water (over)use, agriculture, human development, and a larger population are all factors that could contribute to this degradation. Everything compounds in the downstream coastal wetlands. In collaboration with OTS and other partner organizations and universities, we are trying to disentangle these different drivers.”
Understanding the causes of the degradation, the impacts of the human system, and how the natural and human systems are linked, is the big question of this research. (Image: anywherecostarica.com)
A Lack of Historical Data
One of the challenges the researchers face is to gather a sufficient amount of temporal and spatial information about what happened in the past forty years. There are no public repositories of data to tap, and the information is spotty and hard to access. Rafael says, “Thanks to the collaboration of many local partners, we have been able to gather enough information to stitch together a large database out of a collection of non-systematic studies. The biggest challenge is to harmonize data that has been collected by different people in non-consistent ways.” This large database now contains the best long-term record possible for key hydrologic variables: river flow, groundwater stage, precipitation, and evapotranspiration.
The team is also using remote sensing sources to try to obtain time-series data for land-use and vegetation change, and will have those data ground-truthed through instruments that are collecting similar time-series data. Rafael says, “The idea is to build a network that will allow us to overlap some of the previous data sources with our own, validate and upscale the ground data with remote sensing sources, enabling us to put together a detailed picture of what happened.”
Next Week:Find out how the researchers established connectivity in such a remote area, some of the problems associated with the research, and how the team has addressed those issues.
As a young university student, Dr. Y. Osroosh, now a researcher at Washington State University, wanted to design the most accurate soil moisture sensor. Over the years, however, he began to realize the complexity and difficulty of the task. Inspired by the work of Jackson et al. (1981) and researchers in Bushland, TX, he now believes that plants are the best soil moisture sensors. He and his team developed a new model for interpreting plant canopy signals to indirectly determine soil moisture.
The team measured microclimatic data in an apple orchard.
How Can Plants Indicate Water in Soil?
Osroosh and his team wanted to use plant stress instead of soil sensors to make irrigation decisions in a drip-irrigated Fuji apple tree orchard. But, the current practice of using the crop water stress index (CWSI) for detecting water stress presented some problems, Osroosh comments, “Currently, scientists use either an empirical CWSI or a theoretical one developed using equations from FAO-56, but the basis for FAO-56 equations is alfalfa or grass, which isn’t similar to apple trees.” One of the main differences between grass and apple trees is that apple tree leaves are highly linked to atmospheric conditions. They control their stomata to avoid water loss.
There is high degree of coupling between apple leaves and the humidity of the surrounding air.
So Osroosh borrowed a leaf porometer to measure the stomatal conductance of apple trees, and he developed his own crop water stress index, based on what he found. He explains, “We developed a new theoretical crop water stress index specifically for apple trees. It accounts for stomatal regulations in apple trees using a canopy conductance sub-model. It also estimates average actual and potential transpiration rates for the canopy area which is viewed by a thermal infrared sensor (IRT).”
Fuji apple orchard (Roza Farm, Prosser, WA) where Osroosh performed his research.
What Data Was Used?
Osroosh says they established their new “Apple Tree” CWSI based on the energy budget of a single apple leaf, so “soil heat flux” was not a component in their modeling. He and his team measured soil water deficit using a neutron probe in the top 60 cm of the profile, and they collected canopy surface temperature data using thermal infrared sensors. The team also measured microclimatic data in the orchard.
Neutron probes were problematic, as they did not allow collection of data in real time.
Osroosh comments, “The accuracy of this approach greatly depends on the accuracy of reference soil moisture measurement methods. To establish a relationship between CWSI and soil water, we needed to measure soil water content in the root zone precisely. We used a neutron probe, which provides enough precision and volume of influence to meet our requirements. However, it was a labor and time intensive method which did not allow for real-time measurements, posing a serious limitation.”
Next week:Learn the results of Dr. Osroosh’s experiments, the future of this research, and about other researchers who are trying to achieve similar goals.
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.
Heat waves present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration.
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.”
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.”
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.”