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Founders of Environmental Biophysics: Walter Gardner

Visualizing water flow in soil

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

Soil Being Held in Hand

Water movement in soil defies intuition

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

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

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

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

Water movement in soil defies intuition

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

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