In our latest podcast, Dr. Cristine Morgan, one of the US’s premier soil scientists and Chief Scientific Officer at the Soil Health Institute shares her views on soil health: what it is, how to quantify it, what’s the payoff, and why it’s so critical to our success as a society.
Her thoughts? “We all live or die by soil, literally. We just have to remind people that it’s about quality of life. It’s about the food that you eat. It’s about the safety and welfare of your children.”
Advances in sensor technology and software now make it easy to understand what’s happening in your soil, but don’t get stuck thinking that only measuring soil water content will tell you what you need to know.
Water content is only one side of a critical two-sided coin. To understand when to water, plant-water stress, or how to characterize drought, you also need to measure water potential.
Better data. Better answers.
Soil water potential is a crucial measurement for optimizing yield and stewarding the environment because it’s a direct indicator of the availability of water for biological processes. If you’re not measuring it, you’re likely getting the wrong answer to your soil moisture questions. Water potential can also help you predict if soil water will move, and where it’s going to go. Join METER soil physicist, Dr. Doug Cobos, as he teaches the basics of this critical measurement. Learn:
What is water potential?
Why water potential isn’t as confusing as it’s made out to be
Common misconceptions about soil water content and water potential
Dr. Cobos is a Research Scientist and the Director of Research and Development at METER. He also holds an adjunct appointment in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Washington State University where he co-teaches Environmental Biophysics. Doug’s Masters Degree from Texas A&M and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota focused on field-scale fluxes of CO2 and mercury, respectively. Doug was hired at METER to be the Lead Engineer in charge of designing the Thermal and Electrical Conductivity Probe (TECP) that flew to Mars aboard NASA’s 2008 Phoenix Scout Lander. His current research is centered on instrumentation development for soil and plant sciences.
What was the life of a scientist like before modern measurement techniques? In our latest podcast, Campbell Scientific’s Ed Swiatek and METER’s Dr. Gaylon Campbell discuss their association with three pioneers of environmental measurement.
Learn what it was like to practice science on the cutting edge. Discover the creative lengths they went to and what crazy things they cobbled together to get the measurements they needed.
Measuring soil hydraulic properties like hydraulic conductivity and soil water retention curves is difficult to do correctly. Measurements are affected by spatial variability, land use, sample prep, and more.
Getting the right number is like building a house of cards. If one thing goes wrong—you wind up with measurements that don’t truly represent field conditions. Once your data are skewed in the wrong direction, your predictions are off, and erroneous recommendations or decisions could end up costing you a ton of time and money.
Get the right numbers—every time
For 10 years, METER research scientist, Leo Rivera, has helped thousands of customers make saturated and unsaturated hydraulic conductivity measurements and retention curves to accurately understand their unique soil hydraulic properties. In this 30-minute webinar, he’ll explain common mistakes to avoid and best practices that will save you time, increase your accuracy, and prevent problems that could reduce the quality of your data. Learn:
Sample collection best practices
Where to make your measurements
How many measurements you need
Field mapping tools
How to get more out of your instruments
How to use the LABROS suite to fully characterize soils (i.e., full retention curves and hydraulic conductivity curves)
Best practices for measuring field hydraulic conductivity using SATURO
Hydraulic conductivity, or the ability of a soil to transmit water, is critical to understanding the complete water balance.
In fact, if you’re trying to model the fate of water in your system and simply estimating parameters like conductivity, you could get orders of magnitude errors in your projections. It would be like searching in the dark for a moving target. If you want to understand how water will move across and within your soil system, you need to understand hydraulic conductivity because it governs water flow.
Get the complete soil picture
Hydraulic conductivity impacts almost every soil application: crop production, irrigation, drainage, hydrology in both urban and native lands, landfill performance, stormwater system design, aquifer recharge, runoff during flooding, soil erosion, climate models, and even soil health. In this 20-minute webinar, METER research scientist, Leo Rivera discusses how to better understand water movement through soil. Discover:
Saturated and unsaturated hydraulic conductivity—What are they?
Why you need to measure hydraulic conductivity
Measurement methods for the lab and the field
What hydraulic conductivity can tell you about the fate of water in your system
Date: August 20, 2019 at 9:00 am – 10:00 am Pacific Time
Hydraulic conductivity is the ability of a porous medium (soil for instance) to transmit water in saturated or nearly saturated conditions. It’s dependent on several factors: size distribution, roughness, tortuosity, shape, and degree of interconnection of water-conducting pores. A hydraulic conductivity curve tells you, at a given water potential, the ability of the soil to conduct water.
One factor that affects hydraulic conductivity is how strong the structure is in the soil you’re measuring.
For example, as the soil dries, what is the ability of water to go from the top of a sample [or soil layer in the field] to the bottom. These curves are used in modeling to illustrate or predict what will happen to water moving in a soil system during fluctuating moisture conditions. Researchers can combine hydraulic conductivity data from two laboratory instruments, the KSAT and the HYPROP, to produce a full hydraulic conductivity curve (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Example of hydraulic conductivity curves for three different soil types. The curves go from field saturation on the right to unsaturated hydraulic conductivity on the left. They illustrate the difference between a well-structured clayey soil to a poorly structured clayey soil and the importance of structure to hydraulic conductivity especially at, or near, saturation.
In Hydrology 301, Leo Rivera, Research Scientist at METER, discusses hydraulic conductivity and the advantages and disadvantages of methods used to measure it.
Watch the webinar below.
Get more info on applied environmental research in our
The HYPROP and WP4C enable fast, accurate soil moisture release curves (soil water characteristic curves-SWCCs), but lab measurements have some limitations: sample throughput limits the number of curves that can be produced, and curves generated in a laboratory do not represent their in situ behavior. Lab-produced soil water retention curves can be paired with information from in situ moisture release curves for deeper insight into real-world variability.
Soil water characteristic curves help determine soil type, soil hydraulic properties, and mechanical performance and stability
Moisture release curves in the field? Yes, it’s possible.
Colocating water potential sensors and soil moisture sensorsin situ add many more moisture release curves to a researcher’s knowledge base. And, since it is primarily the in-place performance of unsaturated soils that is the chief concern to geotechnical engineers and irrigation scientists, adding in situ measurements to lab-produced curves would be ideal.
In this brief 20-minute webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell, METER research scientist, summarizes a recent paper given at the Pan American Conference of Unsaturated Soils. The paper, “Comparing in situ soil water characteristic curves to those generated in the lab” by Campbell et al. (2018), illustrates how well in situ generated SWCCs using the TEROS 21 calibrated matric potential sensor and METER’s GS3 water content sensor compare to those created in the lab.
Whether researchers measure soil hydraulic properties in the lab or in the field, they’re only getting part of the picture. Laboratory systems are highly accurate due to controlled conditions, but lab measurements don’t take into account site variability such as roots, cracks, or wormholes that might affect soil hydrology. In addition, when researchers take a sample from the field to the lab, they often compress soil macropores during the sampling process, altering the hydraulic properties of the soil.
Roots, cracks, and wormholes all affect soil hydrology
Field experiments help researchers understand variability and real-time conditions, but they have the opposite set of problems. The field is an uncontrolled system. Water moves through the soil profile by evaporation, plant uptake, capillary rise, or deep drainage, requiring many measurements at different depths and locations. Field researchers also have to deal with the unpredictability of the weather. Precipitation may cause a field drydown experiment to take an entire summer, whereas in the lab it takes only a week.
The big picture—supersized
Researchers who use both lab and field techniques while understanding each method’s strengths and limitations can exponentially increase their understanding of what’s happening in the soil profile. For example, in the laboratory, a researcher might use the PARIO soil texture analyzer to obtain accurate soil texture data, including a complete particle size distribution. They could then combine those data with an HYPROP-generated soil moisture release curve to understand the hydraulic properties of that soil type. If that researcher then adds high-quality field data in order to understand real-world field conditions, then suddenly they’re seeing the larger picture.
Table 1. Lab and field instrument strengths and limitations
Below is an exploration of lab versus field instrumentation and how researchers can combine these instruments for an increased understanding of their soil profile. Click the links for more in-depth information about each topic.
Particle size distribution and why it matters
Soil type and particle size analysis are the first window into the soil and its unique characteristics. Every researcher should identify the type of soil that they’re working with in order to benchmark their data.
If researchers don’t understand their soil type, they can’t make assumptions about the state of soil water based on soil moisture (i.e., if they work with plants, they won’t be able to predict whether there will be plant available water). In addition, differing soil types in the soil’s horizons may influence a researcher’s measurement selection, sensor choice, and sensor placement.
Water potential is the most fundamental and essential measurement in soil physics because it describes the force that drives water movement.
Water potential helps researchers determine how much water is available to plants.
Making good water potential measurements is largely a function of choosing the right instrument and using it skillfully. In an ideal world, there would be one instrument that simply and accurately measured water potential over its entire range from wet to dry. In the real world, there is an assortment of instruments, each with its unique personality. Each has its quirks, advantages, and disadvantages. Each has a well-defined range.
Below is a comparison of water potential instruments and the ranges they measure.
A comparison of water potential instrument ranges
To learn more about measuring water potential, see the articles or videos below:
Soil moisture release curves have always had two weak areas: a span of limited data between 0 and -100 kPa and a gap around field capacity where no instrument could make accurate measurements.
Using HYPROP with the redesigned WP4C, a skilled experimenter can now make complete high-resolution moisture release curves.
Between 0 and -100 kPa, soil loses half or more of its water content. If you use pressure plates to create data points for this section of a soil moisture release curve, the curve will be based on only five data points.
And then there’s the gap. The lowest tensiometer readings cut out at -0.85 MPa, while historically the highest WP4 water potential meter range barely reached -1 MPa. That left a hole in the curve right in the middle of plant-available range.