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Posts from the ‘Micrometeorology’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Engineers Without Borders alleviates Panamanian village water security issues

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) at Washington State University in Pullman, WA has partnered with a small indigenous village located in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé region of Panama. The relationship between this village and EWB at WSU began in 2016 when WSU alumna Destry Seiler began living in the village as a Peace Corps volunteer hoping to help solve the community’s water security needs.

A view of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé taken from the village in Panama.

During the rainy season in this village, approximately 20 households have access to water through a two-inch PVC pipe that operates by gravity. It runs approximately 1.5 kilometers through the jungle from a spring source higher in the mountain to small hose spickets located close to the homes on the distribution line. The other ~80 households do not have access to the distribution line and walk to the closest river or creek up to five times a day to find water. However, during the dry season, most spring sources dry up, leaving all households in the community to walk to the diminished supply of rivers to find their water.

A view of the water line currently serving ~20 homes in the village during the rainy season.

The village initially requested assistance from the Peace Corps in order to find a year-round source of clean water. But, after living in the village for 1.5 years, Ms. Seiler could not locate spring sources that both survived through the dry season and could also reach the homes in need through a gravity fed system.

Then Ms. Seiler began thinking of groundwater as a possible new water source for the community. Unfortunately, groundwater data for the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé was not available from the local government agency. So she decided to reach out to WSU professor, Dr. Karl Olsen, to ask for assistance with a groundwater research project, and the EWB club was formed.

The club visited the village for the first time along with Ms. Seiler and faculty mentor Dr. Karl Olsen in August 2018 to do an initial survey of water use and needs, as well as to create a first-ever map of the area. EWB will return to Panama this June 2019 to implement a solar-powered water pump requested by a section of the community to deliver water from a spring source to approximately 20 homes on the nearest ridgeline. The club will also install latrines in a nearby community. They will continue the groundwater survey of the area through more extensive mapping and perform a more advanced analysis with the support of a local hydrologic company.

EWB members and WSU students Patrick Roubicaud, Kristy Watson, Destry Seiler, Perri Piller, Rene McMinn, and Kevin Allen during their visit to Panama, August 2018.

The team will use a METER-donated ATMOS 41 weather station along with a ZL6 data logger and ZENTRA Cloud software to assist in the data collection necessary to begin mapping groundwater in the area. The weather station will record precipitation, solar radiation, vapor pressure, temperature, wind, and relative humidity data that will enable EWB to begin to quantify environmental conditions and available water supply. When combined with streamflow data from rivers in the area, groundwater availability can also begin to be estimated. Because of ZENTRA Cloud, EWB will be able to view this information near-real time as well as share it with the village to help guide their design decisions. EWB plans to install the ATMOS 41 at a nearby village school to ensure weather station security and to provide an opportunity for local students to learn about their surrounding environment in a way they have not been able to do before.

To learn more about the Panamanian village or the work EWB from WSU is doing, visit ewb.wsu.edu.

See performance data for the ATMOS 41 weather station.

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Why mesonets make weather prediction more accurate

The staggering cost of Montana’s “flash drought”

Some people figured it was climate change. One statistician said it was a part of a cyclical trend for poor crop years. Whatever the cause, the 2017 flash drought that parched the entire state of Montana and most of South Dakota, severely impacted the profitability of ranchers and farmers. In western Montana, fires burned some of the largest acreages in recent history. It resulted in one of the biggest wildfire incident reports (over one-million acres) and caused virtually 100% crop loss in northeastern Montana. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture estimated the crop loss to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and one question was on everybody’s mind—why did no one see it coming?

Figure 1. Montana drought conditions August 2017 (Source: Montana State Library website: https://mslservices.mt.gov/Geographic_Information/Maps/drought/)

Getting the right weather data

The 2017 Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation spring drought report indicated plenty of water: “By the end of the month, almost all drought concern was removed from the state, with the exception of Wibaux and Fallon Counties….As of May 9, 2017, Montana was 98.45% drought free.” But in late May, an abrupt shift in weather conditions led to one of the hottest, driest summers on record.

The problem, says Kevin Hyde, Montana State Mesonet Coordinator, lies not only in the need for more weather data but in obtaining the right kind of data. He says, “One of the reasons drought was missed was because we’re still thinking you measure drought by snowpack and how much water is in the river, which is really great if you’ve got water rights. But we’ve got a lot of dryland out there.”

In addition to weather monitoring, Hyde is a big proponent of adding soil moisture and NDVI measurements to each of the Montana Mesonet stations he oversees. He says, “The conventional weather station only measures atmospheric conditions. But ultimately, to make any decisions, we’ve got to know not just how much water comes into the system, but how much goes into the soil. And even that’s not enough…because what we really need to know is how the water situation is going to affect plants.”

Hyde says more data are needed to warn growers and ranchers about upcoming weather risks. He points to the fact that increasing evapotranspiration got missed leading up to the summer of 2017. “We realized that if we were looking carefully at reference ET, we might have seen it about a month earlier. What would people have done? They would have changed their calf purchases. They would have figured out what kind of forage they needed to buy. These are the types of decisions people can make if they know the information sooner.”

Was the drought over? Soil moisture illuminates the bigger picture

Heavy rains came mid-September of 2017, which led some people to believe the drought was over. However, changes in soil moisture told a different story. Very little of the rain made it into the soil. “At the Havre, MT station you can see we had some heavy precipitation events. Then we had early October snows. So people expected good soil water recharge. But at the end of the day, we didn’t get it. On Sept.15th, soil moisture sensors showed a big soil moisture response at the surface but only a marginal response at 8 inches.” The melt of early October snows onto the soil, still damp from the September rain, drained to 20 inches or more. But as the snowmelt dissipated, there was minimal net gain going into the winter.

Figure 2. Soil moisture traces at the Havre, MT weather station

Predictive models need more coverage to be effective

Typically in the U.S., the National Weather Service (a division of NOAA) puts out a network of weather monitoring stations spaced out across the country, and that data gets fed into forward-looking models that help predict the weather. Dr. Doug Cobos, research scientist at METER says, “What people are finding out is that putting in a sparse network of very expensive systems has done really well. It’s been a good thing. But the spatial gaps in those networks are a problem, especially for agriculture producers and ranchers. They need to know what’s happening where they are.”

Hyde agrees, adding that we need better predictive tools that help growers and ranchers make practical decisions based on data rather than guessing. “January 1st is when the decision has to be made—do I buy cows? Do I sell cows? Do I need more pasture? But many predictions start on April 1st. As one rancher puts it, ‘We don’t bother with Las Vegas. We sit around the dining room table at the beginning of the year and put a million dollars on one shot.’”

Mesonets improve spatial distribution

Mesonets present a practical solution for the need to fill in data gaps between large, complex weather stations. The Montana Mesonet currently has 57 stations interspersed throughout the state, and through partnerships with both the public and private sector, they’re adding more stations every year.

Figure 3. Map of MT Mesonet weather stations (source: http://climate.umt.edu/mesonet/)

At each location, the Montana Mesonet team installs METER all-in-one weather stations, soil moisture sensors, NDVI sensors and data loggers that integrate with ZENTRA Cloud: an easy-to-use web software that seamlessly integrates into third-party applications through an API. He says the system enables better spatial distribution and reliability. “When we were deciding on equipment we asked ourselves: What kind of technology should we use? It had to provide high data integrity. It had to be easy to deploy and maintain. And it had to be cost effective. There’s not a lot of people in that sector. METER systems are low profile, they’re affordable, and the reliability is there. I look at some other mesonets, and they cannot afford to build out further because they are relying on large, complex, expensive systems. That’s where the METER system comes into play.”

Figure 4. Montana Mesonet station setup (Photo credit: Kevin Hyde)

Betting on the future

The Mesonet team and its partners are excited to see how their data will mesh with the available predictive tools to be the most useful and practical for growers and ranchers throughout the state, and they realize that there is still much work to do. “It’s not enough just to get the instrumentation out there. The overall crux is: how do we build the information network, and how do we build a relationship with the producers so that we can have an iterative and interactive conversation?” says Hyde. “We know there needs to be an education in how to use and interpret the data. For example: what is NDVI, and what can we learn from it? A lot of what we need to do is translate science into practical terms.” But he adds that it doesn’t need to be perfect. “What the farmers have said to us is, ‘We don’t need exact numbers. We’re gamblers. Give us probability. Teach us what it means, and we’ll make the decision.’”

Find more information on the Montana Mesonet here and in their newsletter.

See performance data for the ATMOS 41 weather station.

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Just released: ATMOS 41 comparison testing data

Climate parameters such as precipitation, air temperature, and wind speed can change considerably across short distances in the natural environment. However, most weather observations either sacrifice spatial resolution for scientific accuracy or research-grade accuracy for spatial resolution.

weather station

ATMOS 41 all-in-one weather station

The ATMOS 41 represents an optimization of both. It was carefully engineered to maximize accuracy at a price point that allows for spatially distributed observations. Additionally, because many researchers need to avoid frequent maintenance and long setup times, the ATMOS 41 weather station was designed to reduce complexity and withstand long-term deployment in harsh environments. To eliminate breakage, it contains no moving parts, and it only requires recalibration every two years. Since all 14 measurements are combined in a single unit, it can be deployed quickly and with almost no effort. Its only requirement is to be mounted and leveled on top of a pole with an unobstructed view of the sky.

Comparison testing and sensor-to-sensor variability data

METER released the ATMOS 41 in January 2017 after extensive development and testing with partnerships across the world, in Africa, Europe, and the US. We performed comparison testing with high-quality, research-grade non-METER sensors and conducted time-series testing for sensor-to-sensor variability.

See performance data for the ATMOS 41 weather station

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Data collection: 8 best practices to avoid costly surprises

Every researcher’s goal is to obtain usable field data for the entire duration of a study. A good data set is one a scientist can use to draw conclusions or learn something about the behavior of environmental factors in a particular application. However, as many researchers have painfully discovered, getting good data is not as simple as installing sensors, leaving them in the field, and returning to find an accurate record. Those who don’t plan ahead, check the data often, and troubleshoot regularly often come back to find unpleasant surprises such as unplugged data logger cables, soil moisture sensor cables damaged by rodents, or worse: that they don’t have enough data to interpret their results. Fortunately, most data collection mishaps are avoidable with quality equipment, some careful forethought, and a small amount of preparation.

Before selecting a site, scientists should clearly define their goals for gathering data.

Make no mistake, it will cost you

Below are some common mistakes people make when designing a study that cost them time and money and may prevent their data from being usable.

  • Site characterization: Not enough is known about the site, its variability, or other influential environmental factors that guide data interpretation
  • Sensor location: Sensors are installed in a location that doesn’t address the goals of the study (i.e., in soils, both the geographic location of the sensors and the location in the soil profile must be applicable to the research question)
  • Sensor installation: Sensors are not installed correctly, causing inaccurate readings
  • Data collection: Sensors and logger are not protected, and data are not checked regularly to maintain a continuous and accurate data record
  • Data dissemination: Data cannot be understood or replicated by other scientists

When designing a study, use the following best practices to simplify data collection and avoid oversights that keep data from being usable and ultimately, publishable.

Read more

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IoT Technologies for Irrigation Water Management (Part 2)

Dr. Yossi Osroosh, Precision Ag Engineer in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Washington State University, continues (see part 1) to discuss the strengths and limitations of  IoT technologies for irrigation water management.

Informed irrigation decisions require real-time data from networks of soil and weather sensors at desired resolution and a reasonable cost.

LoRaWAN (a vendor-managed solution see part 1) is ideal for monitoring applications where sensors need to send data only a couple of times per day with very high battery life at very low cost. Cellular IoT, on the other hand, works best for agricultural applications where sensors are required to send data more frequently and irrigation valves need to be turned on/off. Low-Power Wide-Area Networking (LPWAN) technologies need gateways or base stations for functioning. The gateway uploads data to a cloud server through traditional cellular networks like 4G. Symphony Link has an architecture very similar to LoRaWAN with higher degree of reliability appropriate for industrial applications. The power budget of LTE Cat-M1 9 (a network operator LPWAN) is 30% higher per bit than technologies like SigFox or LoRaWAN, which means more expensive batteries are required. Some IoT technologies like LoRa and SigFox only support uplink suited for monitoring while cellular IoT allows for both monitoring and control. LTE-M is a better option for agricultural weather and soil moisture sensor applications where more data usage is expected.

NB-IoT is more popular in EU and China and LTE Cat-M1 in the U.S. and Japan. T-Mobile is planning to deploy NB-IoT network in the U.S. by mid-2018 following a pilot project in Las Vegas. Verizon and AT&T launched LTE Cat-M1 networks last year and their IoT-specific data plans are available for purchase. Verizon and AT&T IoT networks cover a much greater area than LoRa or Sigfox. An IoT device can be connected to AT&T’s network for close to $1.00 per month, and to Verizon’s for as low as $2 per month for 1MB of data. A typical sensor message generally falls into 10-200 bytes range. With the overhead associated with protocols to send the data to the cloud, this may reach to 1KB. This can be used as a general guide to determine how much data to buy from a network operator.

Studies show there is a potential for over 50% water savings using sensor-based irrigation scheduling methods.

What the future holds

Many startup companies are currently focused on the software aspect of IoT, and their products lack the sensor technology. The main problem they have is that developing good sensors is hard. Most of these companies will fail before batteries of their sensors die. Few will survive or prevail in the very competitive IoT market. Larger companies who own sensor technologies are more concerned with the compatibility and interoperability of these IoT technologies and will be hesitant to adopt them until they have a clear picture. It is going to take time to see both IoT and accurate soil/plant sensors in one package in the market.  

With the rapid growth of IoT in other areas, there will be an opportunity to evaluate different IoT technologies before adopting them in agriculture. As a company, you may be forced to choose specific IoT technology. Growers and consultants should not worry about what solution is employed to transfer data from their field to the cloud and to their computer or smart phones, as long as quality data is collected and costs and services are reasonable. Currently, some companies are using traditional cellular networks. It is highly likely that they will finally switch to cellular IoT like LTE Cat-M1. This, however, may potentially increase the costs in some designs due to the higher cost of cellular IoT data plans.

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