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Founders of Environmental Biophysics: Walter Gardner

Visualizing water flow in soil

This week, in our “Founders” series, we highlight a soil physicist.

Water movement in soil defies intuition

When Dr. Walter Gardner passed away in June (2015), many viewed the film Water Movement in Soils as one of the main accomplishments of a remarkable career. Dr. Gardner and Jack Hsieh made the film in 1959 at Washington State University. The technology they used was impressive—it was years before advanced electronics would make time lapse movies routine—but Dr. Gaylon Campbell finds the ideas behind the experiments even more remarkable.

“Once you’ve seen the film, you can go back to the unsaturated flow theory and see how it would work,” Campbell says, “but the ideas aren’t really obvious. I wish I knew how he thought of doing that.”

At one point in the film, Gardner himself says that the phenomena he illustrates in the film can be seen in nature “if one observes carefully.” It’s possible that some of these careful observations were made in the fields around Washington State University, where farmers often turned the surface layer of soil over using a moldboard plow. This created a layer of surface soil with a layer of straw underneath it—exactly the conditions Gardner describes in the film as leading to erosion, reduced water in the root zone, and damage to the soil in the plow zone.

Though agriculture was the obvious target of the film, for a while it was also a big hit with the US Golf Association. Golf greens are mown short and get a lot of abuse. They need to be watered and fertilized heavily, but how do you keep enough water on the plants between irrigations without leaching nutrients out of the root zone? Water Movement in Soils provides a perfect answer. Gardner consulted for the USGA and used his film to train people who designed and constructed the greens.

Water movement in soil defies intuition

Our intuitions about how water moves in soil are often wrong. More than fifty years after it was made, this classic film still has the power to help people understand what’s really going on.

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Best of 2019: Environmental Biophysics

In case you missed them, here are our most popular educational webinars of 2019. Watch any or all of them at your convenience.

Lab vs. In Situ Water Characteristic Curves

Lab-produced soil water retention curves can be paired with information from in situ moisture release curves for deeper insight into real-world variability.

Watch it here—>

Hydrology 101: The Science Behind the SATURO Infiltrometer

Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell teaches the basics of hydraulic conductivity and the science behind the SATURO automated dual head infiltrometer.

Watch it here—>

Publish More. Work Less. Introducing ZENTRA Cloud

METER research scientist Dr. Colin Campbell discusses how ZENTRA Cloud data management software simplifies the research process and why researchers can’t afford to live without it.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 101: Need-to-Know Basics

Soil moisture is more than just knowing the amount of water in soil. Learn basic principles you need to know before deciding how to measure it.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 201: Moisture Release Curves—Revealed

A soil moisture release curve is a powerful tool used to predict plant water uptake, deep drainage, runoff, and more.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 301: Hydraulic Conductivity—Why You Need It. How to Measure it.

If you want to predict how water will move within your soil system, you need to understand hydraulic conductivity because it governs water flow.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 102: Water Content Methods—Demystified

Dr. Colin Campbell compares measurement theory, the pros and cons of each method, and why modern sensing is about more than just the sensor.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 202: Choosing the Right Water Potential Sensor

Electrical conductivity

METER research scientist Leo Rivera discusses how to choose the right field water potential sensor for your application.

Watch it here—>

Water Management: Plant-Water Relations and Atmospheric Demand

Dr. Gaylon Campbell shares his newest insights and explores options for water management beyond soil moisture. Learn the why and how of scheduling irrigation using plant or atmospheric measurements. Understand canopy temperature and its role in detecting water stress in crops. Plus, discover when plant water information is necessary and which measurement(s) to use.

Watch it here—>

How to Improve Irrigation Scheduling Using Soil Moisture

capacitance

Dr. Gaylon Campbell covers the different methods irrigators can use to schedule irrigation and the pros and cons of each.

Watch it here—>

Next up:

Soil Moisture 302: Hydraulic Conductivity—Which Instrument is Right for You?

Leo Rivera, research scientist at METER teaches which situations require saturated or unsaturated hydraulic conductivity and the pros and cons of common methods.

Watch it here—>

Predictable Yields using Remote and Field Monitoring

New data sources offer tools for growers to optimize production in the field. But the task of implementing them is often difficult. Learn how data from soil and space can work together to make the job of irrigation scheduling easier.

Watch it here—>

Learn more

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”

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Chalk talk: How to calculate absolute humidity

In this video, Dr. Colin Campbell discusses how to use air temperature and relative humidity to calculate absolute humidity, a value you can use to compare different sites, calculate fluxes, or calculate how much water is actually in the air.

Vapor density tells you how much water is actually in the air.

Watch the video to find out how to calculate absolute humidity and how to avoid a common error in the calculation.

 

Video transcript: Absolute humidity

Hello, I’m Dr. Colin Campbell, a senior research scientist here at METER Group, and also an adjunct faculty at Washington State University where I teach a class in environmental physics. Today we’re going to talk about absolute humidity. In a previous lecture, we discussed how relative humidity was a challenging variable to use in environmental studies. So, I’m going to show the right variable to use as we talk about humidity. 

Absolute humidity can be talked about in terms of vapor pressure, which is what I’m used to, or in terms of vapor density. Whatever we use, we usually start by calculating this from a relative humidity value and a knowledge of air temperature. In my relative humidity lecture, I said that Hr (or the relative humidity) was equal to the vapor pressure divided by the saturation vapor pressure. And in most field studies, we’d typically get a report of the air temperature and the relative humidity. So how do we take those two values and turn them into something we could use to compare different sites, calculate fluxes, or calculate how much water is actually in the air? We’ll need to work through some equations to get there. I’m going to take you through it and give you an example so that you know how to do that calculation.

Vapor pressure

First, we’ll talk about absolute humidity in terms of vapor pressure or Ea. If we rearrange this equation here (very simple math), the relative humidity times the saturation vapor pressure will give us our vapor pressure. And that vapor pressure is now an absolute humidity. How would we do this? Well, let’s first talk about an example in terms of vapor pressure. 

Let’s say a weather report said the air temperature was 25 degrees Celsius and the relative humidity was 28% or 0.28. First, we’d use Teten’s formula which I talked about in the previous lecture. We’d say the saturation vapor pressure at the air temperature is equal 0.611 kPa times the exponential of a constant times the air temperature divided by another constant plus the air temperature. So in our case, the air temperature is 25 degrees, which we’ll add here. Remember saturation vapor pressure is a function of 25. So 0.611 kPa times the exponential of 17.502. In the previous lecture, I showed you that b value times 25 degrees divided by the c value 240.97. And then we add to that 25 degrees (this is for liquid water, of course, it’s 25 degrees Celsius because nothing’s frozen). If you were working over ice, these constants would be different. So we put this into our calculator or into a spreadsheet, and we easily calculate the saturation vapor pressure at 25 degrees C is 3.17 kPa. But we’re not done yet. 

We have to go back to this equation that says the vapor pressure is equal to the relative humidity times the saturation vapor pressure. When we plug our data in, the relative humidity 0.28 times the saturation vapor pressure that we calculated right here, we get a vapor pressure of 0.89 kPa. And if we were calculating fluxes (we’ll talk about that in another lecture), this is typically the value we would use. But there are other things we can do with the absolute humidity values that might be useful.

Vapor density

So let’s talk about vapor density. If we had a certain volume of air, and we wanted to know how much water was in that volume of air (for example, if we were going to try to condense it out) we’d more typically use this vapor density value. But how do we get from a vapor pressure that we can easily calculate from a weather report to a vapor density that would allow me to know how much water was actually in the air? 

This is our equation that says the vapor pressure times the molecular weight of water divided by the universal gas constant times the kelvin temperature of the air will give us the vapor density. So I’ll take you through an example here, just continue on the one we’ve already done, just so you can see how to calculate it and to avoid a pretty common misstep. 

How to avoid a common error

Again, molecular weight of water is 18.02 g/mol. The universal gas constant R is 8.31 J/mol K. And here’s the kelvin temperature of the air. I’ve scribbled this in a little bit. That’s how I note the difference between something like this, which would be air temperature in Celsius and this air temperature in kelvin. So let’s go ahead and plug all these into our equation. There’s our vapor pressure. We’re just dragging that over here. There’s our molecular weight of water. There’s our universal gas constant. And here is the kelvin temperature of the air. So as we look at this, you immediately say, how do I cancel these units? The kilopascals and the joules are certainly not going to cancel as they are. But there are conversions we can use. A Pascal is equal to an Nm-2, and a joule is equal to an Nm.

So if we change this joule to an Nm, we change this Pascal to Nm-2, we have to pay attention here as we’re doing it that the kilo right there, don’t forget that because that can mess you up. So I’m circling that to make sure that we’ve got this. Now we cancel our N’s, and combining together we get a m-3. That’s what we’re hoping for on the bottom. The grams come out on top, they don’t cancel, but everything else does. The mols cancel mols, the kelvin cancels the kelvin there, and the N cancels the N. 

And we come out with just what we were looking for, save one thing, which is a kg/m-3. And this calculation gives us point 0065. But since we actually want to do this in grams, because that’s more typical of what you find in how much water there is in air. It’s not a kg of water, but more in terms of g/m-3 of water, we get 6.5 g/m-3

Check your calculation

One way you can check this calculation (just as a rule of thumb), is if we had a pressure of the air of 100 kPa and a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius, the multiplier to get from your vapor pressure to your vapor density is about 7.4 or so. We’ll just say around 7.0. And we’ll do a quick mental calculation, 0.89 times 7, that should give us something around 6.0. So our answer should be around 6.0, and it is. It’s certainly no orders of magnitude off. So we’ve got at least close to the right answer, by doing a mental check, and we can say this conversion works. 

If you want to learn more about instrumentation to measure all kinds of atmospheric parameters, please come to our website, www.metergroup.com or you can email me to chat more about this: colin.campbell@metergroup. com. 

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What plant hydraulics tell us about drought response

Trees are merchants; they sell water to the atmosphere in exchange for the CO2 they need to photosynthesize sugars. The exchange rate or ‘water-use efficiency’ that drives the plant carbon-water market place is a function of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Thus, theoretically human carbon emissions, which have increased atmospheric CO2 by 40% since 1850, should increase plant water use efficiency, resulting in “CO2 fertilization” of our forests and crops. 

La Plata Mountains, where the study gradient is located

However, evidence for CO2 fertilization is extremely mixed. That’s why Leander Anderegg, postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, and his research team are performing a two-step experiment to determine if increased atmospheric CO2 conditions increase plant water-use efficiency. The team is leveraging a natural elevation gradient in temperature, vapor pressure deficit, and precipitation on a southwestern Colorado mountain to understand:

  1. How much physiological variation is on a single mountain slope between two species
  2. How that variation ultimately affects the potential for CO2 fertilization and differential vegetation responses to rising CO2

For five years, the team has worked on quantifying how two tree species (Ponderosa Pine and Trembling Aspen) can shift their physiology going from low elevation (hot, high vapor pressure deficit environments) up to high elevation (wet, cooler, low vapor pressure deficit environments). They want to understand what that means for each species’ water relations, drought vulnerability, and biogeography in a drying and warming climate.

Quantifying weather parameters  

Anderegg and his team use METER weather stations to quantify exactly how much the local environment changes from the bottom to the top of the mountain. Anderegg says he’s been surprised at how influential vapor pressure deficit changes are on the tree species. He says, “When we compare Aspens to Ponderosas, we’ve found that the difference in atmospheric demand is a big part of the story, particularly in how they respond to drought stress. There is more atmospheric demand at the bottom of the mountain. So one key objective was to quantify how much drier the air was during the peak mid-summer dry down for most of the species. This was critical then to infer how stomata were responding to that gradient and water stress. It’s really difficult in these wide field plots to actually measure transpiration. But with physiological measurements of leaf water potential, hydraulic conductivity, and the vapor pressure deficit from relative humidity sensors, we could then infer how open the stomata were.”

Coring a ponderosa to measure its growth rate

Anderegg used a pressure chamber to measure leaf water potential and also did a lot of shotgun sampling to measure the hydraulic conductivity in twigs. He describes the process, “I went out at 3 am with a 20 gauge shotgun loaded with birdshot to shoot off branches. We pulled water through the branches by applying a vacuum to a pressure chamber and then inserting one end of the branch. To get the hydraulic conductivity of the branch, we measured how quickly the water moved into the chamber.” (Kolb et al 1996)

Vapor pressure deficit was surprising

Anderegg says vapor pressure deficit changes across the elevation gradient were much stronger than he expected. He says, “It was pretty impressive that as you drove up this elevation gradient, the vapor pressure deficit differed by approximately 1.5 kPa. In the crop realm, a vapor pressure deficit of 2 kPa is pretty intense, but we went from a bit over 1 kPa near the top of the mountain to more like 3 kPa down at the drier bottom, which translates to a remarkably different water-use efficiency. 

Two species—two adaptation strategies

When asked what they’ve learned, Anderegg says the difference between the two tree species is pretty amazing. “We’ve seen that the two species have extremely different responses to drought stress. Aspen keeps its stomata open, even at the bottom of the mountain where it’s really dry. It just alters its hydraulic system to try and keep up with it. The Ponderosa, however, does not alter its hydraulic system. It just closes its stomata until it rains in the fall.”

An aspen that died following a drought while it’s neighboring ponderosa lived

Anderegg adds that the two different water relations strategies line up with the type of biogeographical shifts occurring in the two species as the Southwest dries out. He says, “Aspen is sort of a ‘grin-and-bear-it’ species that toughs out drought while Ponderosa is a ‘sit it out’ sort of species. For the last 15 years, the Aspen have been creeping uphill but not gradually. Intermittent droughts are slowly trimming the driest Aspen up the hill in fits and starts. Ponderosa are better at dealing with extreme droughts because they preserve their hydraulic systems. We have not seen mortality pushing the Ponderosa uphill. However, there’s essentially no Ponderosa recruitment (new tree starts) at the bottom of the hill, and the growth rates of adults are a quarter of the rates at the top of the hill. So we think the Ponderosa will move uphill following mean climate change and not in fits and starts. They’ll gradually die off at the bottom and not be replaced by young recruits which will cause them to move uphill in a more gradual manner.”

Dying aspens in the middle of a low elevation aspen stand

Transitioning toward the future

In the years ahead, Anderegg hopes to move into the second phase of the experiment: testing how these two species will respond to CO2 fertilization. He says, “We need to make these measurements over multiple years and many environmental conditions to start to get at how much plasticity any individual plant can manifest (plasticity is the amount that a plant can change its physiology in response to climate change. So if this condition happened, how likely is the plant to respond in a particular way over time) and what the long term trajectories are in these hydraulic traits. We’ve gotten measurements at the height of a significant drought and then another medium year following that drought. We want to transition toward a long-term monitoring perspective that hopefully will give us the information we need to start thinking about how CO2 then plays in.” 

You can learn more about Leander Anderegg’s research here: ldlanderegg.com

Reference

Kolb KJ, Sperry JS, Lamont BB (1996) A method for measuring xylem hydraulic conductance and embolism in entire root and shoot systems. Journal of Experimental Botany. 47:304, pg 1805-1810

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Chalk Talk: Why is Humidity Relative?

Dr. Colin Campbell, a senior research scientist at METER Group, as well as adjunct faculty at Washington State University teaches about relative humidity.

Comparing RH at different research sites can be a challenge

Watch the video to find out why we use the term relative humidity and why comparing RH at different research sites can be a challenge.

 

Video transcript

Why is humidity relative?

Hi, I’m Dr. Colin Campbell. I’m a senior research scientist here at METER Group, as well as adjunct faculty up at Washington State University. And I teach a class in environmental biophysics. And today, we’re going to be talking about relative humidity. Have you ever looked at a weather report and wondered, what do they mean by the term relative? Why aren’t we talking about absolute things? And so today I’m going to talk about what is relative humidity? Well, relative humidity we’re going to define here as just hr. And hr is equal to the partial pressure of water vapor in air divided by the saturation vapor pressure or the maximum possible partial pressure of water in air as a function of temperature. So this is relative because anytime we have a partial pressure of water vapor, we’re always dividing it by the maximum possible water vapor that could be in the air at any point.

Comparing RH at different sites is a challenge

So, why would relative humidity be such a challenge for us as scientists to use in comparing different sites? I wanted to talk about that so we can focus in here on this saturation vapor pressure. Over here we have Tetens equation. This says that the saturation vapor pressure, which is a function of air temperature is equal to 0.611 kPa times the exponential of a constant “b” times the air temperature divided by another constant “c” plus the air temperature. So at any point, depending on the air temperature, we can calculate the saturation vapor pressure, and then we can put it back into this equation and get our relative humidity. There are two situations we might think about for calculating our saturation vapor pressure. The most typical is this one: where that constant “b” is 17.502 degrees C. And the constant “c” is 240.97 degrees C (the units on this are degrees C, so these will cancel). If we’re over ice, those constants will be different: “b” would be 21.87 degrees C and “c” would be 265.5 degrees C. 

So as I mentioned, relative humidity is a challenging variable to use in research because while vapor pressure (ea) (the vapor pressure of the air) is somewhat conservative across a day, the saturation vapor pressure (with respect to air temperature), this changes slowly with temperature across the day. So if we graphed temperature on one axis and the relative humidity on the other axis, we might during a typical day have a temperature range that looks somewhat like this. And even if the actual vapor pressure “ea” wasn’t changing, we’d see a relative humidity trend that looked like this: only changing because of air temperature. And because of that, if we wondered how do I compare the water in the air at one research site, for example, with the water in the air at another research site? We might be inclined to average them. But because of this trend, the average of the relative humidity at any site tends to be around 0.60 to 0.65 and therefore will be totally irrelevant in the literature. 

So we need to speak in absolutes, and in my next lecture, I’m going to go into what we can do to calculate that absolute relative humidity. If you want to know more about making measurements in the atmosphere, go to metergroup.com, look at our atmospheric instrumentation, and you can learn more from there.

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The effects of environmental change on carbon cycling across the semi-arid west

Meet Christopher Beltz: G.A. Harris Fellowship winner

Increased nitrogen availability has the potential to alter many ecosystem functions—and is doing so already. This is due to the widespread response of net primary productivity (biomass) and soil respiration to increased nitrogen inputs into the biosphere.

Increases in nitrogen inputs are responsible for the acidification of soils, streams, and lakes and can affect forest and grassland productivity. Former G.A. Harris Fellowship winner, Christopher Beltz, a PhD student at Yale University, and his research team are examining two major drivers of carbon cycling: water and nitrogen. They want to understand the degree of limitation by both of these factors in the semi-arid ecosystems of the western United States and if that limitation changes by specific function.

Inspired by a mitigation pilot project

Beltz decided to study the effects of increased nitrogen on biomass after learning about the initiation of a major energy development in a sagebrush steppe system which caused declines in a local mule deer herd. He says, “One hypothesis was that the development significantly reduced available winter range forage and also impacted the use of it as the animals moved more quickly through the noisy environment. They wanted to see if the widespread application of fertilizers would potentially offset the loss of biomass and increase the forage quality. In the end, it was clear that the effect of nitrogen fertilization alone would have minimal to no effect. However we also noticed some variability in the results and that this variability seemed to be related to precipitation.”

Beltz thought that if he could control the water in a system in addition to nitrogen, the results might be more consistent. Thus, Beltz and his research team broadcast nitrogen over the soil at three semi-arid grassland and shrubland/sagebrush sites in Colorado and Wyoming. He says, “The three sites essentially have a similar species list, annual precipitation, and annual temperature. However, temperature increases as you go south, and there are some differences in seasonality. The shrublands in the far north are the driest in the late summer which is typical of shrublands, where you see a large amount of precipitation occurring in the spring with a deficit in the summer. Larger taproots are beneficial in this system because they can access deeper water reservoirs.”

Measuring soil moisture improves understanding

The team used METER weather stations, soil moisture sensors, and data loggers to monitor site conditions (i.e., precipitation, air temperature, soil moisture, and soil temperature) with high temporal resolution. Beltz explains, “We monitored soil moisture to understand whether our treatments were having any effect. We needed to know if the treatments actually altered the soil water conditions. With soil sensors in the ground, we could monitor that. We also monitored precipitation at the site level because of the fine scale spatial heterogeneity of precipitation in these systems. We weren’t confident we could obtain this with interpolation or modeling; we wanted site-specific values.”

Beltz uses this and other data to understand the interactive effects of nitrogen and water and also changes in water and nitrogen concentrations. He says, “We do a classic full-factorial manipulation outdoors. We perform the exact same manipulations with the same timing at each site. We measure a whole suite of variables that range from ecosystem structure to ecosystem function. This includes soil respiration, plant community, soil microbial communities (fungal and bacterial) using next-generation sequencing. We look at pools of soil carbon, and we do some fractionation so we can get at more labile and recalcitrant carbon compounds.”

Beltz says that monitoring soil moisture at multiple depths is important. “Our soil samples come from the same depths as the sensors so we can differentiate depth when we look at changes in bacterial or fungal composition. We then try to tie that to temperature and moisture. In 2018, we added an additional set of soil moisture sensors in our water treatment so we could start to quantify the effect in the soil depth that those water treatments were having. This helped explain a lot of what we were seeing.”

Nitrogen or water: which is the driver?

Beltz says the analyses are ongoing, but what they’ve learned so far is that an application of water equivalent to 12 millimeters precipitation penetrates to 10 centimeters of depth, and the effect of that application lasts three to seven days at all of their sites. He says, “Last year, we had an unseasonably large amount of precipitation at our northerly site. So for most of the season, the water treatments and the controls were identical in terms of water availability. That was a very helpful context for us because we started to see things that did not match the expected patterns.”

Looking at the big picture, he adds, “What’s come out of this is not what anybody expected. One major finding, at least in the initial analyses at two of our sites, is that it’s really the combined treatment of increased nitrogen and water that has the effect. This is not necessarily surprising in some ways, however it is the widespread lack of response of any other treatment combination that is extremely interesting.”

What it all means

Beltz sums up the implications of his research like this: “We know water availability and precipitation will shift globally due to climate change, as well as nitrogen deposition and availability. Our research is trying to tease apart the effects of two factors, at least within the western United States, that we know are likely to cause changes to the structure and function of dryland ecosystems. As we start to look at carbon balance or shifts in function or species competition of plant communities, we are finding out that it’s the combined effect of increased nitrogen and water that will cause a more major change as opposed to just one or the other. It’s important that we integrate that combination into models that often do not account for both of these factors.”

Beltz says in the future he’s interested in continuing his work in the carbon/nitrogen cycle world, and he wants to look at integrating nitrogen and water into carbon balance modeling efforts.

You can read more about the first study mentioned, regarding nitrogen fertilization in the sagebrush steppe, which was published in PloS ONE: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0206563

Find out about his research here: christopherbeltz.com or via Twitter @BeltzEcology

Now accepting applications: 2019 G. A. Harris Fellowship

The Grant A. Harris Fellowship provides $60,000 worth of METER research instrumentation (six $10,000 awards) to graduate students studying any aspect of agricultural, environmental, or geotechnical science.

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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.

Watch the video

 

 

 

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Learn more about measuring soil moisture. Download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture“.

To understand how soil moisture and soil water potential work together, download “The researcher’s complete guide to water potential.”

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.

Soil moisture sensors aid forensic science in time-of-death estimates

Extending time of death estimates

Forensic scientists are looking at better, more accurate ways of determining the post-mortem interval, or time of death. When a human body decomposes, microbes and nematodes become abundant in the soil surrounding the body. The types and maturity of these organisms may be a means of determining the time of death, but thus far most studies have focused on short post-mortem time frames.

Scientists look for ways to increase the accuracy of long-term post-mortem interval estimates

That’s why Stacy Taylor, her advisor, Dr. Jennifer DeBruyn, and their research team at the University of Tennessee are using cutting-edge molecular techniques and classical microscopic techniques to try and extend the time frames over which this approach could be used to determine how long it’s been since victims have died. 

Monitoring dramatic soil changes   

Taylor, a winner of the National Institute of Justice Graduate Research Fellowship in STEM, working in conjunction with the UT Anthropology Research Facility, is measuring biological and chemical changes in soil composition brought about by long-term human decomposition. She says, “We are looking at a combination of soil chemistry, microbial ecology, and some of the soil animals, particularly the nematodes, to get an entire food web approach in understanding all of the nutrient cycling that is occurring in these systems. We want to look at the soil chemistry patterns and microbial/nematode succession to see if these cross-inform each other.” 

Taylor explains some of the changes in soil composition that occur during both vertebrate and invertebrate decomposition, “Basically, any time you have a decomposition event that is not composed of plant litter, it creates what’s called a “hot spot” of nutrient enrichment. Unlike plant litter, which decomposes very slowly, with a vertebrate system you have a tremendous amount of protein and fat. You also have a lot of calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium. And when you put a large load of these things into the soil, you get a huge change in soil organic composition, nutrient availability, and soil moisture. So you’re essentially dealing with massive changes in a very localized soil environment.”

Decomposition also changes the soil water

Taylor and her adviser Dr. Debruyn had the fairly new idea to insert METER soil moisture, temperature and electrical conductivity sensors connected to data loggers into the soil in these hot spots, to see what kind of interesting data would turn up.

The TEROS 12 is an updated version of the sensor Taylor used in her research

She says they’ve been surprised at how informative and eye-opening this has been. She explains, “These hot spots change the ionic strength of the soil water. And that is highly correlated to electrical conductivity, which is measured by the soil moisture sensors. A change in ionic strength potentially impacts the salinity of the soil. Some of those changes have been shown to persist for well over a year, which is what these soil sensors are showing. I take an hourly reading, and the sensors are producing the most amazing data.”  

Taylor says the sensors were inserted into the soil surface, so they could measure the impact the decomposition produced immediately on the upper layer of soil. They took soil cores at 16 centimeters to measure soil pH and EC, and they also used RT-1 air temperature sensors to track accumulated degree days which are based on ambient air temperature and correlate with maggot growth and development rates. 

Identifying time markers

Taylor says that soil changes (in particular EC and temperature) are not just general deviations but show clear stages as decomposition progresses through time, indicating they might be useful as time markers. She explains, “We are tracking a succession of events. These events happen at particular time points and are associated with certain decomposition stages (i.e, bloat, active decay, advanced decay, or skeletonized remains). For example, you might see traces of increased electrical conductivity followed by a drop. If that drop happens at the same stage of decomposition, over and over, then you know that you have a time marker. And when you gradually accumulate some of these time markers, that can potentially inform some of the existing estimates of how long something has been there.”

Taylor’s study is about bringing better justice and more peace to the families of crime victims.

What’s the future?

Taylor says the implications of this study will help nail down many of the intrinsic controls on the decomposition process. And once they understand that, they’ll have a better idea how to employ these estimates of post mortem interval, which will bring better justice and more peace to the families of crime victims. About the future of the research, she says, “This is the kind of study that you want to replicate at other human decomposition facilities that vary by altitudes, weather, soils, and more. You need to be able to look at a variety of environments just to see what happens.”

You can read more about Stacy’s project here.

To learn more about measuring soil moisture, download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture“.

To understand how soil moisture and soil water potential work together, download “The researcher’s complete guide to water potential.”

Chalk Talk: Intensive vs. Extensive Variables

Learn the difference between intensive and extensive variables and how they relate to soil water potential vs. soil water content in our new Chalk Talk whiteboard series. In this video series, Dr. Colin S. Campbell teaches basic principles of environmental biophysics and how they relate to measuring different parameters of the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum.

Watch the video

 

Learn more

To learn more about measuring water potential vs. water content read: Why soil moisture sensors can’t tell you everything.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Video transcript

Hello, my name is Colin Campbell. I’m a senior research scientist here at METER group. And I teach a class on environmental biophysics. Today I wanted to talk about something we teach in the class: the difference between extensive and intensive variables. I’d like to do this with the goal of relating it to the difference between volumetric water content and water potential. 

Here, I have a picture of a ship moving through the ice and some metal that’s been heated in a furnace. I think we would agree the ship has the highest amount of heat in it compared to this very small piece of metal. And if we placed that piece of metal onto the outside of the ship, despite the fact that there is more heat in the metal, we know the heat would not move from the high amount of heat (ship) to the low amount of heat (metal). It would actually move from the highest temperature to the lowest temperature. Why is that?

The reason is that heat moves because of temperature and not because of heat content or the amount of heat in something. Heat content defines an amount or an extent. And we generally term something that defines an extent or an amount as an extensive variable.An extensive variable depends broadly on the size of something or how much of something there is. 

This differs for temperature. Temperature doesn’t depend on size. The temperature could be the same in a very small room or a very large room, but the amount of heat or heat content in those rooms would be quite different. When we describe temperature, we talk about intensity, which is why we call these types of variables intensive variables. This is because they don’t depend on size or amount. 

Let’s talk about another example. Here’s your heating bill. Maybe it’s natural gas. What you’re paying for is the amount of heat you put into the house. But the question is, are you comfortable in the house? And from this bill, we can’t tell. Maybe you put in 200 heat units, whatever those might be. We can’t tell if that’s comfortable because we don’t know the size of the house or the type of insulation. All those things would influence whether you were comfortable. 

Alternatively, if the temperature is 71 F that’s quite comfortable. That’s equivalent to about 22 degrees Celsius. So the intensive variable, temperature, is different than the extensive variable, heat content, that tells us how much heat we put in. And that’s important because at the end of the day, that leads to cost. 

On this side, we don’t know how much we paid to keep it at 22 C because heat content doesn’t tell us anything about that. But the intensive variable temperature does tell us something about comfort. So both of these variables are critical to really understanding something about our comfort in the house. 

Now let’s talk about the natural environment. Specifically, we’re going to talk about soils. We’ll start with the extensive variable. When we talk about water in soil, the extensive variable is, of course, water content. Water content defines the amount of water. Why would we care about water content? Well, for irrigation or a water balance.

The intensive variable is called water potential. What does water potential tell us? It tells us if soil water is available and also predicts water movement. If this soil had a water content of 25% VWC and another soil was at 20% VWC, would the water move from the higher water content to the lower water content? Well, that would be like our example of the ship and the heated piece of metal. We don’t know if it would move. It may move. And if the soil on either side was exactly the same, we might presume that it would move from the higher water content to the lower water content, but we actually don’t know. Because the water content is an extensive variable, it only tells us how much there is. It won’t tell us if it will move. 

Now, if we knew that this soil water potential was -20 kPa and this soil water potential over here was -15 kPa, we would know something about where the water would move, and it would do something different than we might think. It would move from the higher water potential to the lower water potential against the gradient in water content, which is pretty interesting but nonetheless true. Water always moves from the highest water potential to the lowest water potential.

This helps us understand these variables in terms of plant comfort. We talked about the temperature being related to human comfort. We know at what temperatures we are most comfortable. With plants, we know exactly the same thing, and we always turn to the intensive variable, water potential, to define plant comfort.

For example, if we have an absolute scale like water potential for a particular plant, let’s say -15 kPa is the upper level for plant comfort, and -100 kPa is the lower level of comfort, we could keep our water potential in this range. And the plant would be happy all the time. Just like if we kept our temperature between 21 and 23 Celsius, that would be comfortable for humans. But of course, we humans are different. Some people think that temperature is warm, and some think it’s cold. And it’s the same for plants. So this isn’t a hard and fast rule. But we can’t say the same thing with water content. There’s no scale where we can say at 15% water content up to 25% water content you’ll have a happy plant That’s not true.If we know something about the soil, we can infer it. But soil is unique. And we’d have to derive this relationship between the water content and the water potential to know that. 

So why would we ever think about using water content when we measure water in the soil? One reason is it’s the most familiar to people. And it’s the simplest to understand. It’s easy to understand an amount. But more importantly, when we talk about things like how much we’re going to irrigate, we might need to put on 10 millimeters of water to make the plants happy. And we’d need to measure that. Also if we want to know the fate of the water in the system, how much precipitation and irrigation we put on versus how much is moving down through the soil into the groundwater, that also relates to an amount.  

But when we want to understand more about plant happiness or how water moves, it’s going to be this intensive variable, water potential that makes the biggest difference. And so with that, I’ll close. I’d love for you to go check out our website www.metergroup.com to learn a little bit more about these measurements in our knowledge base. And you’re also welcome to email me about this at colin.campbell@meter group.com.

Soil moisture: ECH20 vs. TEROS, which is better?

See how the new TEROS soil moisture sensor line compares with METER’s trusted ECH20 sensor line.

TEROS 12 soil moisture sensor

Volumetric water content—defined

To evaluate the performance of any water content sensor, you need to first understand its technology. In order to do this, it’s necessary to understand how volumetric water content (VWC) is measured. Volumetric water content is the volume of water divided by the volume of soil (Equation 1) which gives the percentage of water in a soil sample.

So, for instance, if a volume of soil (Figure 1) was made up the following constituents: 50% soil minerals, 35% water, and 15% air, that soil would have a 35% volumetric water content.

The percentage of water by mass (wm) can be measured directly using the gravimetric method, which involves subtracting the oven-dry soil mass (md) from the mass of moist soil (giving the mass of water, mw) and dividing by md (Equation 2).

The resulting gravimetric water content can be converted to volumetric by multiplying by the dry bulk density of the soil (b) (Equation 3).

Why capacitance technology works

Volumetric water content can also be measured indirectly: meaning a parameter related to VWC is measured, and a calibration is used to convert that amount to VWC. All METER soil moisture sensors use an indirect method called capacitance technology. In simple terms, capacitance technology uses two metal electrodes (probes or needles) to measure the charge-storing capacity (or apparent dielectric permittivity) of whatever is between them.

Table 1 illustrates that every common soil constituent has a different charge-storing capacity. In a soil, the volume of most of these constituents will stay constant over time, but the volume of air and water will fluctuate.

Since air stores almost no charge and water stores a large charge, it is possible to measure the change in the charge-storing ability of a soil and relate it to the amount of water (or VWC) in that soil. (For a more detailed explanation of capacitance technology watch our Soil Moisture: methods/applications webinar.

Capacitance today is highly accurate

When capacitance technology was first used to measure soil moisture in the 1970s, scientists soon realized that how quickly the electromagnetic field was charged and discharged was critical to success. Low frequencies led to large soil salinity effects on the readings. Over time, this new understanding, combined with advances in the speed of electronics, enabled the original capacitance approach to be adjusted for success. Modern capacitance sensors, such as METER sensors, use high frequencies (70 MHz) to minimize effects of soil salinity on readings.

The circuitry in capacitance sensors can be designed to resolve extremely small changes in volumetric water content, so much so, that NASA used METER’s capacitance technology to measure water content on Mars. Capacitance soil moisture sensors are easy to install and tend to have low power requirements. They may last for years in the field powered by a small battery pack in a data logger.   

TEROS and ECH20: same trusted technology

Both TEROS and ECH20 soil moisture sensors use the same trusted, high-frequency (70 MHz) capacitance technology that is published in thousands of peer-reviewed papers. Figure 3 shows the calibration data for the ECH20 5TE and TEROS 12.

Read the full article….

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>