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Posts from the ‘Water Potential sensors’ Category

Best Research Instrument Hacks

We wanted to highlight innovative ways people have modified their instrumentation to fit their research needs.  Here, Georg von Unold, founder and president of UMS (now METER) illustrates ingenuity in a story that inspired the invention of the first UMS tensiometer and what could be one of the greatest scientific instrument hacks of all time.

Instrument hacks

The Bavarian Alps

An Early Penchant for Ingenuity

In 1986, graduating German students were required to join the military or perform civil service.  Von Unold chose to do a civil service project investigating tree mortality in the alpine region of the Bavarian Mountains.  He explains, “We were trying to understand pine tree water stress in a forest decline study related to storms in certain altitudes where trees were inexplicably falling over. The hypothesis was that changing precipitation patterns had induced water stress.”  

To investigate the problem, von Unold’s research team needed to find tensiometers that could measure the water stress of plants in the soil, which was not easy. The tensiometers von Unold found were not able to reach the required water potential without cavitating, so he decided to design a new type of tensiometer.  He says, “I showed my former boss the critical points. It must be glued perfectly, the ceramic needed defined porosity, a reliable air reference access, and water protection of the pressure transducer. I explained it with a transparent acrylic glass prototype to make it easier to understand. At a certain point, my boss said, “Okay, please stop. I don’t understand much about these things, but you can make those on your own.”

Instrument hacks

Two snorkels protected a data logger predecessor from relative humidity.

Snorkels Solve a Research Crisis

The research team used those tensiometers (along with other chemical and microbial monitoring) to investigate why trees only in the precise altitude of 800 to 1100 meters were dying. One challenge facing the team was that they didn’t have access to anything we might call a data logger today.  Von Unold says, “We did have a big process machine from Schlumberger that could record the sensors, but it wasn’t designed to be placed in alpine regions where maximum winter temperatures reached -30℃ or below. We had to figure out how to protect this extremely expensive machine, which back then cost more than my annual salary.“

Von Unold’s advisor let him use the machine, cautioning him that the humidity it was exposed to could not exceed 80%, and the temperature must not fall below 0℃.  As von Unold pondered how to do this, he had an idea. Since the forest floor often accumulated more than a meter of snow, he designed an aluminum box with two snorkels that would reach above the snow.  The snorkels were guided to a height of two meters.  Using these air vents, he sucked a small amount of cold, dry air into the box. Then, he took his mother’s hot iron, bought a terminal switch to replace the existing one (so it turned on in the range of 0-30℃), and mounted a large aluminum plate on the iron’s metal plate to better distribute the heat.

Von Unold says, “Pulling in the outside air and heating it worked well. The simple technique reduced the relative humidity and controlled the temperature inside the box. Looking back, we were fortunate there wasn’t condensing water and that we’d selected a proper fan and hot iron. We didn’t succeed entirely, as on hot summer days it was a bit moist inside the box, but luckily, the circuit boards took no damage.”

Instrument hacks

Tree mortality factors were only found at the precise altitude where fog accumulated.

Finding Answers

Interestingly, the research team discovered there was more to the forest decline story than they thought. Fog interception in this range was extremely high, and when it condensed on the needles, the trees absorbed more than moisture.  Von Unold explains, “In those days people of the Czech Republic and former East Germany burned a lot of brown coal for heat. The high load of sulfur dioxide from the coal reduced frost resistivity and damaged the strength of the trees, producing water stress.  These combined factors were only found at the precise altitude where the fog accumulated, and the weakened trees were no match for the intense storms that are sometimes found in the Alps.”  Von Unold says once the East German countries became more industrialized, the problem resolved itself because the people stopped burning brown coal.

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Do you have an instrument hack that might benefit other scientists?  Send your idea to [email protected]

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How to Measure Water Potential

In the conclusion of our 3-part water potential  series (see part 1), we discuss how to measure water potential—different methods, their strengths, and their limitations.

How to measure water potential

Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range.

How to measure water potential

Essentially, there are only two primary measurement methods for water potential—tensiometers and vapor pressure methods. Tensiometers work in the wet range—special tensiometers that retard the boiling point of water (UMS) have a range from 0 to about -0.2 MPa. Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range—from about -0.1 MPa to -300 MPa (0.1 MPa is 99.93% RH; -300 MPa is 11%).

Historically, these ranges did not overlap, but recent advances in tensiometer and temperature sensing technology have changed that. Now, a skilled user with excellent methods and the best equipment can measure the full water potential range in the lab.   

There are reasons to look at secondary measurement methods, though. Vapor pressure methods are not useful in situ, and the accuracy of the tensiometer must be paid for with constant, careful maintenance (although a self-filling version of the tensiometer is available).

Here, we briefly cover the strengths and limitations of each method.

Vapor Pressure Methods:

The WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer is one of the few commercially available instruments that currently uses this technique. Like traditional thermocouple psychrometers, the dew point hygrometer equilibrates a sample in a sealed chamber.

How to Measure Water Potential

WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer

A small mirror in the chamber is chilled until dew just starts to form on it. At the dew point, the WP4C measures both mirror and sample temperatures with 0.001◦C accuracy to determine the relative humidity of the vapor above the sample.

Advantages

The most current version of this dew point hygrometer has an accuracy of ±1% from -5 to -300 MPa and is also relatively easy to use. Many sample types can be analyzed in five to ten minutes, although wet samples take longer.

Limitations

At high water potentials, the temperature differences between saturated vapor pressure and the vapor pressure inside the sample chamber become vanishingly small.

Limitations to the resolution of the temperature measurement mean that vapor pressure methods will probably never supplant tensiometers.

The dew point hygrometer has a range of -0.1 to -300 MPa, though readings can be made beyond -0.1 MPa using special techniques. Tensiometers remain the best option for readings in the 0 to-0.1 MPa range.

Secondary Methods

Water content tends to be easier to measure than water potential, and since the two values are related, it’s possible to use a water content measurement to find water potential.

A graph showing how water potential changes as water is adsorbed into and desorbed from a specific soil matrix is called a moisture characteristic or a moisture release curve.

download

Example of a moisture release curve.

Every matrix that can hold water has a unique moisture characteristic, as unique and distinctive as a fingerprint. In soils, even small differences in composition and texture have a significant effect on the moisture characteristic.

Some researchers develop a moisture characteristic for a specific soil type and use that characteristic to determine water potential from water content readings. Matric potential sensors take a simpler approach by taking advantage of the second law of thermodynamics.

Matric Potential Sensors

Matric potential sensors use a porous material with known moisture characteristic. Because all energy systems tend toward equilibrium, the porous material will come to water potential equilibrium with the soil around it.

Using the moisture characteristic for the porous material, you can then measure the water content of the porous material and determine the water potential of both the porous material and the surrounding soil. Matric potential sensors use a variety of porous materials and several different methods for determining water content.

Accuracy Depends on Custom Calibration

At its best, matric potential sensors have good but not excellent accuracy. At its worst, the method can only tell you whether the soil is getting wetter or drier. A sensor’s accuracy depends on the quality of the moisture characteristic developed for the porous material and the uniformity of the material used. For good accuracy, the specific material used should be calibrated using a primary measurement method. The sensitivity of this method depends on how fast water content changes as water potential changes. Precision is determined by the quality of the moisture content measurement.

Accuracy can also be affected by temperature sensitivity. This method relies on isothermal conditions, which can be difficult to achieve. Differences in temperature between the sensor and the soil can cause significant errors.

Limited Range

All matric potential sensors are limited by hydraulic conductivity: as the soil gets drier, the porous material takes longer to equilibrate. The change in water content also becomes small and difficult to measure. On the wet end, the sensor’s range is limited by the air entry potential of the porous material being used.

How to Measure Water Potential

METER Tensiometer

Tensiometers and Traditional Methods

Read about the strengths and limitations of tensiometers and other traditional methods such as gypsum blocks, pressure plates, and filter paper here.

Choose the right water potential sensor

Dr. Colin Campbell’s webinar “Water Potential 201: Choosing the Right Instrument” covers water potential instrument theory, including the challenges of measuring water potential and how to choose and use various water potential instruments.

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

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Secrets of Water Potential: Learn the Science Behind the Measurement

This month in a 3 part series, we will explore water potential —the science behind it and how to measure it effectively.

water potential

To understand water potential, compare the water in a soil sample to water in a drinking glass.

Water Potential: a Definition

Read the article here…

Next week learn about the four components of water potential—osmotic potential, gravitational potential, matric potential, and pressure potential.

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

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Soil Sensors Help Thousand-Year-Old Levees Protect Residents of the Secchia River Valley

In Italy, on January of 2014, one of the Secchia river levees failed, causing millions of dollars in flood damage and two fatalities. Concerned with preventing similar disasters, scientists and geotechnical engineers are using soil sensors to investigate solutions in a project called, INFRASAFE (Intelligent monitoring for safe infrastructures) funded by the Emilia Romagna Region (Italy) on European Funds.  

Secchia river in Italy.

Secchia river in Italy (Image: visitsassuolo.it)

Professor Alberto Lamberti, Professor Guido Gottardi, Department of Civil, Chemical, Environmental, and Materials Engineering, University of Bologna, along with Prof. Marco Bittelli, University of Bologna professor of Soil and Environmental Physics, installed soil sensors along some transects of the Secchia river to monitor water potential and piezometric pressure.  They want to study properties of the compacted levee “soil”, during intense flooding.  Bittelli comments, “Rainfall patterns are changing due to climate change, and we are seeing more intense floods. There is a concern about monitoring levees so that we can, through studying the process, eventually create a warning system.”  

soil sensors

Trench for burying sensor cables.

What Are The Levees Made Of?

Amazingly, some of these levees are very old, built at the beginning of the second millennium to protect the Secchia valley population from floods. “These rudimentary barrages were the starting point of the huge undertakings, aiming at the regulation and stabilization of the river, which were gradually developed and expanded in the following centuries…building up a continuous chain all along the river.” (Marchii et. al., 1995)

soil sensors

Vegetation in the Secchia River floodplain.

Unlike natural soil with horizons, the soil that makes up the levees is made up of extremely compact clay and other materials, which will pose challenges to the research team in terms of sensor installation.  The team will use soil sensors to determine when the compacted material that makes up the levees gets so saturated it becomes weak.  Bittelli says, “We are looking at the mechanical properties of the levees, but mechanical properties are strongly dependent on hydraulic properties, particularly soil water potential (or soil suction).  A change in water potential changes the mechanical properties and weakens the structure.”  This can happen either when a soil dries below an optimal limit or wets above it; the result is a weakened barrier that can fail under load.

soil sensors

Here the team uses an installation tool to install water content sensors.

Soil Sensors Present Installation Challenges

To solve the installation problems, the team will use a specialized installation tool to insert their water content sensors.  Bittelli says, “Our main challenge is to install sensors deep into the levees without disturbing the soil too much.  It’s very important to have this tool because clearly, we cannot dig out a levee; we might be the instigator of a flood. So it was necessary for us to be able to install the sensors in a relatively small borehole.”  The researchers will install the sensors farther down than the current tool allows, so they are modifying it to go down to eight or ten meters.  Bittelli explains, “We used a prototype installation tool which is two meters long. We modified it in the shop and extended it to six meters to be able to install water content sensors at further depths.”

Another challenge facing the research team is how to install water potential sensors without disturbing the levee.  Marco explains, “We placed an MPS-6 (now called TEROS 21) into a cylinder of local soil prepared in the lab. A sort of a muffin made of soil with an MPS-6 inside. Then we lowered the cylinder into the borehole, installed the sensor inside, and then slid it down into the hole.  Our goal is to try and keep the structure of the soil intact. Since the cylinder is made of the same local soil, and it is in good contact with the borehole walls, hydraulic continuity will be established.”

soil sensors

Researchers placed an MPS-6 into a cylinder of local soil prepared in the lab.

Unlike installing water content sensors, matric potential sensors don’t need to be installed in undisturbed soil but only require good contact between the sensor and the bulk soil so liquid water can easily equilibrate between the two. The researchers are also contemplating using a small camera with a light so they can see from above if the installation is successful.  

Find Out More

The researchers will collect data at two experimental stations, one on the Po river, and one on the Secchia River. So far, the first installation was successfully performed, and data are collected from the website. Bitteli says the first installation included water content, temperature, and electrical conductivity sensors, water potential sensors, and tensiometers connected to a wireless network that will transmit all the data to a central office for analysis.

You can read more about this project and how it’s progressing here.

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

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Water Potential Instruments used to Determine Where Alkali Bee Larvae Get their Water

Alkali bee beds are maintained by farmers near Touchet, Washington to pollinate fields of alfalfa, grown there for seed. The beds are typically a few acres in size and provide a nesting place for the bees, which can increase seed production by as much as 70 percent. Alkali bees are better than honeybees for pollinating alfalfa, as they don’t mind the explosive pollen release of the alfalfa flower.

Alkali Bee

Alkali Bee

USDA-ARS entomologist, Dr. Jim Cane, is trying to understand optimal bee-soil-water relations to ensure the bees will happily reproduce next year’s pollinators.  Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell recently worked with Dr. Cane to measure water relations in bee nesting beds.  Here’s what they found out:

Why Water Relations Matter

Alkali bees nest underground.  They prefer salty soil surfaces which retard evaporation and discourage plant growth. The soil has to be the right texture, density, and have the correct moisture levels for successful nesting. In addition, the water potential of the larval food provision mass has to be low so it does not mold.  Growers apply high levels of sodium chloride to the bee bed surface, and the soil is sub-irrigated to keep the salt near the surface and the subsurface soil moist.  

Alkali Bee

Bottom right: a white larvae on a gold colored provision mass inside one of the tunnels dug by the female.

The female digs a tunnel down to a favorable depth, typically 15-20 cm or more, hollows out a spheroidal shaped cell around 1 cm diameter, and carefully coats the inside of the cell with a special secretion that appears to form a hydraulic and vapor barrier between the soil and the nest contents.  She then builds a provision mass from pollen and nectar, shaped like an oblate spheroid with major axis around 6 mm and minor axis 3-4 mm.  One egg is laid on the provision mass (which provides food for the larva), and the mother bee then seals up the entrance to the cell and moves on to the next one.  

Alkali Bee

The female coats the inside of the cell with a special secretion that appears to form a hydraulic and vapor barrier between the soil and the nest contents.

Specialized Instruments for Each Measurement

In order to understand moisture relations between the soil, the larva, and the food provision mass, Dr. Cane carefully excavated three soil blocks from one of the bee beds, dissected them to find nests, and Dr. Campbell helped measure water potentials of the eggs, larvae, and provision masses.  They also measured matric and total water potentials of bee bed soils.  

alkali bee

A sample chamber psychrometer

A  Sample Chamber Psychrometer is the only water potential device with a small enough sample chamber to be able to measure individual eggs and early-stage larvae, which it did.  The provision masses were too dry to measure with the psychrometer, so several provisions were combined (to provide sufficient sample size) and measured in a Dew Point Potentiameter, along with the soil samples.  Dr. Campbell measured matric potential of the highly saline soils using a tensiometer.  

Water Potential Seems Important to the Bees

Dr. Campbell thinks matric potential is important in determining physical condition of the soil (how easy it is for the bees to dig and paint the inside of the nest), but probably has little to do with bee or larva water relations. The water potentials of the eggs and larvae were low (dry), but within the range one sees in living organisms.  There was a consistent pattern of larva water potential decreasing with larval growth.  

alkali bee hiding

This alkali bee seeks shelter during the rain in a previously dug tunnel.

The exciting part of this experiment was the provision mass water potentials, which were so low that it is more convenient to talk about them in terms of water activity (another measure of the energy state of water in a system, widely used by food scientists).  The intact provision masses were drier than any of the soil water potentials and not in equilibrium with the soil.  Dr. Campbell says, “It’s interesting that all the provision masses were at water activities that would make them immune to degradation by almost all microbes, both bacteria and fungi.”

Another Interesting Observation  

Dr. Cane found one provision mass covered with mold.  Soil and plants are full of inoculum, so it is unlikely that the other provision masses lacked spores, but this one was wet enough to be compromised, and the others apparently weren’t.  Dr. Campbell says, “There are two possibilities.  Either it was put up too wet, or it got wet in the nest.  The really interesting question is why all of them don’t get that wet.  I think the hydrophobic coating of the nest eliminates all hydraulic contact from the soil to the provision mass, thus eliminating any liquid water flow, which would almost immediately wet the pollen balls.  I think it also drastically reduces the vapor conductance from the soil to the ball, making water uptake through the vapor phase slow enough that the provision mass can usually be consumed before its water activity gets high enough for mold to grow.”

alkali bees

Tool the grower uses to punch holes in the nesting beds for the bees to tunnel into.

How Do Larvae Stay Hydrated?

The water activity of the larvae were around 0.99, much higher than either the soil or the provision mass, inspiring the scientists to wonder how they stay hydrated.  Dr. Campbell speculates, “They have a water source from their metabolism, since water is a byproduct of respiration (Campbell and Norman, p. 205).  It is also possible for biological systems to take up water against a potential gradient by expending energy.  There are reports of a beetle which can take up water from a drop of saturated NaCl (water activity 0.75), so it is possible that the larva gets water from the environment that way.  There appears to be no shortage of energy available.  On the other hand, it would seem like the larval cuticle would need to be pretty impermeable to maintain water balance since the salty soil, and especially the provision mass, are so much drier than the larva.”  Dr. Cane notes that, ”For a few exemplar bee species, mature larvae weigh 30-40% more than the provision they ate, with the possibility that the provision undergoes a controlled hydration by the soil atmosphere through the uncoated soil cap of the nest cell.”

In the future, Dr. Campbell is hoping to see more experiments that will answer some of the questions raised, such as measuring individual provision masses to determine why there is some variation in water potential.  Dr. Cane will be undertaking experiments to measure moisture weight gain of new provisions exposed to the soil atmosphere of the Touchet nest bed soil.

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References

Campbell, G. S. 1985. Soil Physics with BASIC: Transport Models for Soil-Plant Systems.  Elsevier, New York.

Campbell, G. S. and J. M. Norman. 1998. An Introduction to Environmental Biophysics. Springer Verlag, N. Y.

Rawlins, S. L. and G. S. Campbell. 1986. Water potential: thermocouple psychrometry. In Methods of Soil Analysis, Part 1. Physical and Mineralogical Methods – Agronomy Monograph 9, 2nd edition.

Do Soil Microbes Influence Plant Response to Heat Waves? (Part II)

Rachel Rubin, PhD candidate at Northern Arizona University and her team at Northern Arizona University are investigating the role soil microbes play in plant response to heat waves, including associated impacts to microbial-available and plant-available water (see part 1). Because heat waves threaten plant productivity, they present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration. Below are the results of Rachel’s experiments, some of the challenges the team faced, and the future of this research.

microbes

Heat waves present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration.

Challenges

Rachel says the experiment was not without its difficulties. After devoting weeks towards custom wiring the electrical array, the team had to splice heat-resistant romex wire leading from the lamps to the dimmer switches, because the wires inside the lamp fixtures kept melting. Also, automation was not possible with this system. She explains, “We were out there multiple times a day, checking the treatment, making sure the lamps were still on, and repairing lamps with our multi-tools. We used an infrared camera and an infrared thermometer in the field, so we could constantly see how the heating footprint was being applied to keep it consistent across all the plots.”

microbes

Arizona Fescue (image: wickipedia.com)

Some Grass was Heat Resistant

Rachel says her biggest finding was that all of the C4 grasses survived the field heat wave, whereas only a third of the Arizona Fescue plants survived. She adds that the initially strong inoculum effects in the greenhouse diminished after outplanting, with no differences between intact, heat-primed inoculum or sterilized inoculum for either plant species in the field. “It may be related to inoculum fatigue,” she explains, “the microbes in the intact treatment may have become exhausted by the time the plants were placed in the field, or maybe they became replaced, consumed, or outcompeted by other microbes within the field site”. Rachel emphasizes that it’s important to conduct more field experiments on plant-microbe interactions. She says, “Field experiments can be more difficult than greenhouse studies, because less is under our control, but we need to embrace this complexity. In practice, inoculants will have to contend with whatever is already present in the field. It’s an exciting time to be in microbial ecology because we are just starting to address how microbes influence each other in real soil communities.”

microbes

Diminished effects may be related to inoculum fatigue.

What’s In Store?

Now that the team has collected data from the greenhouse and from the heat wave itself, they have started looking at mycorrhizal colonization of plant roots, as well as sequencing of bacterial and archaeal communities from the greenhouse study. Rachel says, “It’s quite an endeavor to link ‘ruler science’ plant restoration to bacterial communities at the cellular level. I’m curious to see if heat waves simply reduce all taxa equally or if there is a re-sorting of the community, favoring genera or species that are really good at handling harsh conditions.”

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Do Soil Microbes Influence Plant Response to Heat Waves?

Rachel Rubin, PhD candidate at Northern Arizona University, is interested in the intersection of extreme climate events and disturbance, which together have a much greater impact on plant communities. She and her team at Northern Arizona University are investigating the role soil microbes play in plant response to heat waves, including associated impacts to microbial-available and plant-available water.

soil microbes

Plants have a tight co-evolutionary history with soil microbes. It has been said that there is no microbe-free plant on earth.

Because heat waves threaten plant productivity, they present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration.

Can Soil Microbes Increase Heat Resistance?

Many plants maintain mutualistic associations with a diverse microbiome found within the rhizosphere, the region of soil that directly surrounds plant roots. These “plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria” and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi provision limiting resources including water, phosphorus and nitrogen in exchange for photosynthetically derived sugars. However, we understand very little about whether extreme events can disrupt these interactions.

soil microbes

Fig. 1. Fine roots exploring the inoculum that was added as a band between layers of potting mixture.

Rachel and her team exposed rhizosphere communities to heat stress and evaluated the performance of native grasses both in the greenhouse, and transplanted under an artificial heat wave. They hypothesized that locally-sourced inoculum (a sample of local soil containing the right microbes) or even heat-primed inoculum would help alleviate water stress and improve survival of native grasses.

The Experiments

Rubin started in the greenhouse by planting Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis, C4 grass) and Arizona Fescue (Festuca arizonica, C3 grass) and assessed their responsiveness to locally collected soil inoculum that had either been left intact, pre-heated or sterilized (Fig. 1). Rubin says, “We expected that our plants would benefit the most from having intact soil microbe communities. But, we were surprised to find very large differences between plant species. Blue Grama performed the best with intact inoculum, whereas Arizona Fescue performed better with pre-heated or sterilized soil”. This could mean that Blue Grama is more dependent on its microbiome, whereas Arizona Fescue engineers a rhizosphere that contains more parasitic microbes rather than mutualistic microbes. Rachel says that understanding this relationship is important for tailoring plant restoration projects to local conditions. Plants that exhibit high levels of mutualisms with their rhizosphere might require an extra inoculum “boost” in order to successfully establish in highly degraded soil, whereas we should not bother to inoculate plants that tend to harbor parasites within their rhizosphere.

soil microbes

Fig. 2. A heated plot in the foreground connected to infrared lamps, water content and matric potential sensors, and EM50 data loggers.

After the team studied these responses, they planted the grasses into a degraded section of a grassland and installed an array of 1000-Watt ceramic infrared lamps mounted on steel frames (Fig. 2) to address whether inoculation influenced plant performance and survival. With help from a savvy undergraduate electrical engineering major (Rebecca Valencia), Rubin simulated a two-week heat wave while monitoring soil temperature and moisture using water content and water potential sensors.  She also measured plant performance (height, leaf number and chlorophyll content) before, during, and after the event. Control plots had aluminum “dummy lamps” to account for shading.

Soil Microbes

An infrared photo, which is how Rachel determined that the heating footprint was evenly distributed on all the plants. The scale bar on the right is in degrees C.

Data obtained from soil sensors helped Rachel to measure heating treatment effects as well as rule out a potential cause for plant mortality: soil moisture. “Soil temperature was on average 10 degrees hotter in heated plots than control plots, but matric potential and soil water content were completely unaffected by heating. This tells us that the grasses died from reasons other than water stress– perhaps a top-kill effect.” Although growing concern over heat waves in agriculture is centered around accompanying droughts, this experiment demonstrates that heating can produce negative effects on some species even when water is in plentiful supply.

Next week:  Learn the results of Rachel’s experiments, some of the challenges the team faced, and the future of this research.

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

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The Tensiometer: Micro-sized

A strand of a spider’s web is 5 micrometers in width. Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) devices range in size from 20 micrometers to one millimeter. That’s the incredibly small size of the components used in the tensiometer being developed by PhD candidate, Michael Santiago, and his collaborators, professors Abraham Stroock and Alan Lakso  at Cornell University.

tensiometer

MEMS devices can be as small in width as 4 strands of a spider’s web.

The engineer/research team is using MEMS technology to develop a miniature tensiometer (microtensiometer) that has a 100 times larger range than existing tensiometers, is stable for months, communicates digitally, and can be embedded into plant stems to directly measure plant water potential.

Existing Tensiometer Limitations:

Water potential is the best measure of a plant’s hydration relative to growth and product yield. Unfortunately, directly measuring water potential in plant tissue is only possible through labor-intensive, destructive methods such as the leaf pressure bomb and stem psychrometer. A common alternative is to use ‘set-and-forget’ soil tensiometers to measure soil water potential as a proxy for plant water potential, but this method is unreliable for plants with high hydraulic resistance (vines and woody species), where plant water potential is often much less than the water potential in soil. Although soil tensiometers are very accurate and simple to use, they can be large and bulky, and cavitate as soils dry.

tensiometer

Prototype microtensiometer made with MEMS components.

Solution:

The Cornell University research team wants to improve the design of the tensiometer so it can be used in the field for applications such as continuously monitoring and controlling plant water potential in vineyards to consistently produce high-quality wine grapes with an exact flavor/aroma profile.  Santiago says, “We’ve basically miniaturized a tensiometer using microchip technology to the point where it’s this tiny chip inside a wafer. Because of the way we fabricated it, we are hoping to make it an embeddable tensiometer that can go in anywhere and measure tension down to about -100 bars (-10 MPa).”

Developing and Calibrating

Santiago is using a chilled mirror hygrometer to produce solutions of specific water potential to test, calibrate, and characterize the microtensiometer.  He comments, “We’ve been testing it in osmotic solutions. We use the water potential meter for calibrating a solution of PEG (polyethylene glycol), and then we measure it with the tensiometer.”

One hurdle the team has to overcome is finding a membrane that keeps small molecules and ions out of the tensiometer pores: these pollute the water inside the tensiometer and cause measurement errors. Santiago explains,Our solution right now is to test in solutions of large molecules, such as PEG of 1400 molecular weight. The tensiometer pores are about 3-4 nanometers, extremely small, but small molecules, such as sugars and salts, can still get through. It’s not a problem for the short term because we are directly submerging into solutions of just water and large molecules, but our goal is to go into the environment and insert the tensiometer into soils and plant stems where small molecules are ubiquitous, so we’ll have to find a membrane that works and can handle field testing.”

The team has been experimenting with materials such as Gore-Tex and reverse osmosis membranes [M5]  [M6] hoping to find a membrane that allows water through and keeps ions out, but does not slow the measurement.

Tensiometer

Researchers want be able to insert the device directly into plant xylem.

What’s Next?

Santiago says the calibrations have worked well. Now the challenge will be putting the tensiometer into different environments such as soil, concrete, and plants. For example, they want be able to insert the device directly into plant xylem, which will require a seal so water is not exiting the system.  And that’s not the only complication. Santiago explains, “We are getting ready to do some testing in soils. The challenge will be getting good data because soil can be really heterogeneous, and we have this sensor with a much larger range than the usual tensiometer. So what do we compare it with? That’s going to be a bit of a challenge.” Santiago says the next few months will be spent getting into some different materials and obtaining some initial publishable data.

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Climate Change, Genetics, and the Future World

Climate change scientists face a particular challenge— how to simulate climate change without contributing to it. Paul Heinrich, a Research Informatics Officer associated with the Southwest Experimental Garden Array (SEGA) remembers looking at the numbers for a DOE project that would have used fossil fuel to measure forests’ response to temperature change. “It would have been very, very expensive in fossils fuels to heat a hectare of forest,” he says.

The alternative is, “to use elevation change as a surrogate for climate change so we could do climate change manipulations without the large energy costs.”

Using elevation change as a surrogate for climate change.

An overview of the SEGA sites using elevation change as a surrogate for climate change. For more information on these sites, visit http://www.sega.nau.edu/. Photo credit Paul Heinrich

By monitoring organisms across a temperature gradient it is possible to identify genetic variation and traits within a species that could contribute to a species survival under projected future climates.

Control and Monitoring Infrastructure

SEGA is an infrastructure project started in 2012 after researchers at Northern Arizona University’s Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research were awarded a $2.8 million dollar NSF grant with a $1 million match from NAU. Consisting of ten fenced garden sites for genetics-based climate change research, SEGA is set on an elevation gradient from 4000 to 9000 feet in the Southwestern United States. Each SEGA site has an elaborate data collection and control system with meteorological stations and site-specific weather information. Custom-engineered Wireless Sensing Actuating and Relay Nodes (WiSARDs) send data packets to a hub which then send the data back to a centralized server.

Because there is inherent moisture content variability from site to site, volumetric water content and soil water potential sensors have been installed to monitor and maintain moisture levels. If there is a change in soil moisture at one site, soil sensors will detect the difference. Software on the server notes the difference and sends a signal to the other sites, turning on irrigation until the soil moisture matches across sites.

Climate Change

An illustration of SEGA’s cyberinfrastructure and data management system. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

Having such an elaborate infrastructure creates an opportunity for researchers looking to conduct climate change research. By offering access to the pre-permitted SEGA sites, the hope is that research will generate much-needed data for climate projections and land management decisions.

When asked if the data stream was overwhelming to manage Heinrich said, “Well, not yet. We are just getting started. The system is designed for what SEGA is expected to look like in ten years, where we expect to have 50 billion data points.”

Research Considerations

Climate change projections show temperatures increasing rapidly over the next 50 to 100 years, bringing drought with it. The impact of these changes will be dramatic. Temperature and drought tolerant species will survive, those that are not will die, drastically changing the landscape in areas that are currently water stressed. Pests like the pine beetle and invasive species like cheatgrass will do well in a drier environment where water-stressed natural species will not be able to compete.

Climate Change

Soap Creek, AZ from above. With climate change projections it is likely that more land will become marginal. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

“Foundational species,” or species that have a disproportionate impact on the ecosystem, are the primary focus of the research efforts at SEGA sites. These are the species that drive productivity, herbivore habitat, and carbon fixation in the ecosystem. Unlike forests in other parts of the United States, forests in the Southwest can be dominated by one or two species, which makes potential research subjects easier to identify.

Genetic Variance

Amy Whipple, an Assistant Professor in Biology and the Director of the Merriam-Powell Research Station who oversees the day-to-day activities at SEGA, has been conducting some of her own research at the garden sites. Whipple has studied Piñon Pine, Southwestern White Pine, and has a proposal to study Cottonwood in process.

Whipple says that models currently suggest that Piñon Pine will be gone from Arizona within the next 50 years, adding that the models do not take into account possibilities for evolution or genetic variance that might help the Piñon survive. Her research is largely asking, will trees from hotter, drier locations have a better chance of surviving climate change? “We’re trying to do that with a number of different species to look for ways to mitigate the effects of climate change in the Southwest.”

Climate Change

Researchers documenting a Piñon Pine. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

In some of her research on Piñon Pine, it was discovered that four different species were grouped morphologically and geographically from southern Arizona to Central Mexico. While this suggests that the divergence of species has occurred, it also suggests a low migration rate for these tree species. Migration rates of drought and temperature tolerant species is an important consideration when modeling for a future climate. If the migration of genetically adapted species cannot keep up with climate, the land could become marginal as a foundational species dies off.

Climate Change Predictions and Considerations

In the Southwest, there are entire forests that could become grassland in 50 years because the genetic characteristics of the foundational species currently in those regions will not adapt to higher temperatures and drought stress. But what does this mean from a land management perspective?

Climate Change

Ponderosa pine trees, a foundational species in some area of the Southwestern United States.

Environmental conservationists maintain that we should protect the unique species that are in a place and that introducing other organisms or genetic material would be an ethical violation. Environmental interventionists make the argument that climate change has been caused by humans, so we have lost the option of remaining bystanders.

Research, Land Management and Policy

Paul Heinrich says that the route we take to manage the land will depend on our end goals. “Places that have trees now, if you want them to have trees 50 years from now, you are going to have to do something about it. The trees that are on the landscape right now are locally adapted to the past climate. They are not necessarily adapted to the future climate. They are probably maladapted to the future climate.”

To be clear, SEGA’s goal is not to promote or implement assisted migration. Instead, Amy Whipple says, SEGA can test what the effects of assisted migration might be. “In a smaller experimental context, we’re asking: how will these plants do if we move them around? What will happen to them if we don’t move them around?’” The goal is to provide decision makers with the data they need to make informed decisions about how to manage the land.

Climate Change

The Arboretum Meadow in Flagstaff, AZ. Home of one of the SEGA research sites. Photo credit Paul Heinrich.

Whipple’s own view is that we may no longer have the option of doing nothing. “Unless major changes are made for the carbon balance of the planet, keeping things the same is not a viable option. Managing for a static past condition is not viable anymore.”

Remaining Questions

Both Heinrich and Whipple acknowledge that these are inherently difficult questions. Ultimately the public and land managers must make these decisions. In the meantime, data from SEGA research may help ensure better predictions, better decisions, and better outcomes.

To find out more about conducting your own climate change research using SEGA go to: http://www.sega.nau.edu/use-sega

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Green Roofs—Do They Work? (Part II)

Innovative soil scientist, John Buck, and his team have discovered that green roofs have more capacity than people imagined (see part I).  Below are some of the challenges he sees for the future, and the type of measurements he suggests researchers take, as they continue to validate the effectiveness of these urban ecosystems.

Green roofs are essentially gardens on rooftops, which store water and help prevent sewage overflow.

A green roof is essentially a garden on a roof, but rather than growing plants in soil, installers use a synthetic substrate made of expanded shale, expanded clay, crushed brick, or other highly porous, lightweight material.

New Challenges for Green Roofs

Green roof results are promising, but they present a new challenge:  making sure the plants have enough water. The crux of the challenge is that the lightweight, expanded shale/clay substrate material, the standard in green roof design, does a good job of soaking up the water, but has some peculiar properties that are unlike typical soils.  Specifically, the expanded shale and expanded clay media tend to be dominated by sand and fine gravel-sized particles that provide a high proportion of macropores, but the interior porosity of the large particles is dominated with micropores.  That pore size distribution leads researchers to two important questions— How much water will be readily available for plant growth? And, will the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity be adequate to avoid starving the roots under high-evaporative demand by allowing water to flow to roots from the bulk soil? These are critical questions as green roof technologies continue to evolve.

Green Roofs

Researchers wonder, will the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity be adequate to avoid starving the roots under high-evaporative demand.

Measurements Required for Green Roof Validation

Still, Buck has learned a great deal from his work.  Considering the wild spatial distribution of summer storms, quantitative green roof performance studies require that rainfall be measured locally. Monitoring of soil volumetric moisture content measurements in concert with rainfall and soil lysimeter measurements of drainage, reveal the degree of total and capillary saturation, drainage rate, and porosity available for storage. Soil water potential sensors, placed within the capillary fringe of water ponded over subsurface drainage layers, can provide useful insights regarding the dryness of the drainage layer and overlying soil, as well as the available storage of stormwater within the drainage layer.

Direct measurement of soil drainage using lysimeters is a key supplemental measurement on green roof performance quantification projects because there is an unmeasured component of water storage where drought-resistant alpine succulents (typically Sedum species) are used on green roofs.  The Sedum plants can absorb up to 10 mm of rainfall equivalent in their plant tissues.

Green Roofs

Measurement of soil drainage using lysimeters is a key supplemental measurement on green roof performance quantification projects.

Other Projects and Future Plans

At ground level, Buck is quantifying the performance of intensive stormwater infiltration areas known as rain gardens, bioretention areas, or more generically, infiltration-based stormwater best management practices (Infiltration-based BMPs).  When monitoring infiltration-based stormwater BMPs, Buck has used similar tools to those used on green roofs, but has added water-level sensors and piezometers.  Buck has found that ancillary measurements of electrical conductivity, often available on water content sensors, along with surface and pore water sampling, can be used to document transformations taking place in infiltration systems.  These measurements now combine to show that green roofs and infiltration-based BMPs are indeed making a difference to urban environments and contributions to CSOs.  The challenge now is how to implement this technology more widely.  But, with the validation now in hand, that job should be quite a bit easier.

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