Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Data logger’

Understanding the Influence of Coastal Fog on the Water Relations of a California Pine Forest

Forests along the California coast and offshore islands experience coastal fog in summer, when conditions are otherwise warm and dry. Since fog-water inputs directly augment water availability to forests during the dry season, a potential reduction of fog due to climate change would place trees at a higher risk of water stress and drought-induced mortality.  Dr. Sara Baguskas completed her Ph.D. research in the geography department at UC Santa Barbara on how variation in fog-water inputs impact the water relations of a rare, endemic tree species, Bishop pine, located on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park. The goal of her study was to enhance our ability to predict how coastal forests may respond to climate change by better understanding how fog-water inputs influence the water budget of coastal forests.

Fog on Trees

Dr. Baguskas’ study seeks a better understanding of how fog-water inputs influence the water budget of coastal forests.

Fog Manipulation

Santa Cruz Island supports the southern extent of the species range in California, thus it is where we would expect to see a reduction in the species range in a warmer, drier, and possibly less foggy future. To advance our mechanistic understanding of how coastal fog influences the physiological function of Bishop pines, Dr. Baguskas conducted a controlled greenhouse experiment where she manipulated fog-water inputs to potted Bishop pine saplings during a three-week drydown period. She installed soil moisture (VWC) sensors horizontally into the side of several pots of sapling trees at two different depths (2 cm and 10 cm) and exposed the pines to simulated fog events with a fog machine.

In one group of plants, Baguskas let fog drip down to the soil, and in another treatment, she prevented fog drip to the soil so that only the canopies were immersed in fog.  She adds, “Leaf wetness sensors were an important complement to soil moisture probes in the second treatment because I needed to demonstrate that during fog events, the leaves were wet and soil moisture did not change.” Additionally, Baguskas used a photosynthesis and fluorescence system to measure photosynthetic rates in each group.

Fog in pine trees from the ground

The fog events had a significant, positive effect on the photosynthetic rate and capacity of the pines.


Dr. Baguskas found that the fog events had a significant, positive effect on the photosynthetic rate and capacity of the pines.  The combination of fog immersion and fog drip had the greatest effect on photosynthetic rates during the drydown period, so, in essence, she determined that fog drip to the soil slows the impact of drydown.  

“But,” she says, “when I looked at fog immersion alone, when the plant canopies were wet by fog with no drip to the soil, I also saw a significant improvement in the photosynthetic rates of these plants compared to the trees that received no fog at all, suggesting that there could have been indirect foliar uptake of water through these leaves which enhanced performance.”  An alternative interpretation of that, Baguskas adds, is that nighttime fog events reduced soil evaporation rates, resulting in less evaporative loss of soil moisture.

Dr. Baguskas says her “canopy immersion alone” data are consistent with other research: Todd Dawson, Gregory Goldsmith, Kevin Simmonin, Carter Berry, and Emily Limm have all found that when you wet plant leaves, it has a physiological effect, suggesting the plants are taking water up through their leaves and not relying as much on soil moisture.  (These authors performed different types of experiments, but their papers serve as reference studies). Baguskas says, “My results suggest that is what’s going on, but it’s not as definitive as other studies that have actually worked on tracking the water through leaves using a stable isotope approach.”  

Lessons Learned

Though Dr. Baguskas did not monitor soil temperature in this study, she says that in the future, she will always combine temperature data with soil moisture data.  She comments, “Consistently, the soil moisture in the “canopy-immersed only” plants was slightly elevated over the soil moisture in the control plants.  It made me wonder if this was a biologically meaningful result. Does it support the fact that if plants are taking up water through their leaves, they don’t rely on as much soil moisture?  Or did my treatment change soil temperature, and is that having a confounding effect on my results?  What I’ve learned from this, is that in the future I will always use soil probes with temperature sensors because you may not know until you see your results if temperature might be important.”

Future Fog Studies

Baguskas is a USDA-NIFA postdoctoral Research Fellow working with Dr. Michael Loik in the Environmental Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz. She continues to study coastal fog, but now in strawberry fields. Her current research questions are focused on integrating coastal fog into water-use decisions in coastal California agriculture. She loves the work and continues to rely on soil moisture sensors to make meaningful and reliable environmental measurements in the field and greenhouse.

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

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Screening for Drought Tolerance

Screening for drought tolerance in wheat species is harder than it seems.  Many greenhouse drought screenings suffer from confounding issues such as soil type and the resulting soil moisture content, bulk density, and genetic differences for traits like root mass, rooting depth, and plant size. In addition, because it’s so hard to isolate drought stress, some scientists think finding a repeatable screening method is next to impossible. However, a recent pilot study done by researcher Andrew Green may prove them wrong.

An automatic irrigation setup with green plants sticking out

Automatic Irrigation Setup

The Quest for Repeatability

Green says, “There have been attempts before of intensively studying drought stress, but it’s hard to isolate drought stress from heat, diseases, and other things.”  Green and his advisors, Dr. Gerard Kluitenberg and Dr. Allan Fritz, think monitoring water potential in the soil is the only quantifiable way to impose a consistent and repeatable treatment. With the development of a soil-moisture retention curve for a homogeneous growth media, they feel the moisture treatment could be maintained in order to isolate drought stress.  Green says, “Our goal is to develop a repeatable screening system that will allow us to be confident that what we’re seeing is an actual drought response before the work of integrating those genes takes place, since that’s a very long and tedious process.”

Why Hasn’t This Been Done Before?

Andrew Green, as a plant breeder, thinks the problem lies in the fact that most geneticists aren’t soil scientists. He says, “In past experiments, the most sophisticated drought screening was to grow the plants up to a certain point, stop watering them, and see which ones lived the longest. There’s never been a collaborative approach where physiologists and soil scientists have been involved.  So researchers have imposed this harsh, biologically irrelevant stress where it’s basically been an attrition study.” Green says he hopes in his research to use the soil as a feedback mechanism to maintain a stress level that mimics what exists in nature.

Data acquisition a cabinet setup for green's expanded experiment

Data Acquisition Cabinet setup for Green’s expanded experiment.

The Pilot Study

Green used volumetric water content sensors, matric potential sensors, as well as column tensiometers to monitor soil moisture conditions in a greenhouse experiment using 182 cm tall polyvinyl chloride (PVC) growth tubes and homogenous growth media. Measurements were taken four times a day to determine volumetric water content, soil water potential, senescence, biomass, shoot, root ratio, rooting traits, yield components, leaf water potential, leaf relative water content, and other physiological observations between moisture limited and control treatments.  

Soil Media:  Advantages and Disadvantages

To solve the problem of differing soil types, Andrew and his team chose a homogeneous soil amendment media called Profile Greens Grade, which has been extensively studied for use in space and other applications.  Green says, “It’s a very porous material with a large particle size.  It’s a great growth media because at the end of the experiment you can separate the roots of the plant from the soil media, and those roots can be measured, imaged, and studied in conjunction with the data that is collected.”   Green adds, however, that working with soil media isn’t perfect: there have been hydraulic conductivity issues, and the media must be closely monitored.

What’s Unique About this Study?

Green believes that because the substrate was very specific and his water content and water potential sensors were co-located, it allowed him to determine if all of his moisture release curves were consistent.  He says, “We try to pack these columns to a uniform bulk density and keep an eye on things when we’re watering, hoping it’s going to stay consistent at every depth.  So far it’s been working pretty well: the water content and the water potential are repeatable in the different columns.”

Irrigation setup for the expanded study with research data cabinet

Entire Irrigation setup for the expanded study.

Plans for the Future

Green’s pilot study was completed in the spring, and he’s getting ready for the expanded version of the project:  a replicated trial with wild relatives of wheat. He’s hoping to use soil moisture sensors to make automatic irrigation decisions: i.e. the water potential of the columns will activate twelve solenoid valves which will disperse water to keep the materials in their target stress zone, or ideal water potential.

The Ultimate Goal

The ultimate goal of Green’s research is to breed wild species of wheat into productive forms that can be used as farmer-grown varieties. He is optimistic about the results of his pilot study.  He says, “Based on the very small unreplicated data that we have so far, I think it is going to be possible to develop a repeatable method to screen these materials.  With the data that we’re seeing now, and the information that we’re capturing about what’s going on below ground, I think being able to hold these things in a biologically relevant stress zone is going to be possible.”

Take our Soil Moisture Master Class

Six short videos teach you everything you need to know about soil water content and soil water potential—and why you should measure them together.  Plus, master the basics of soil hydraulic conductivity.

Watch it now—>

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

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Soil Moisture and Temperature Sensors Aid Landmine Detection

Anti-personnel landmines are one of the most dangerous environmental hazards worldwide. Each year thousands of people are injured by landmines buried in eighty different countries.  Ben Wallen, Ph.D. candidate and active military officer at the Colorado School of Mines, is using soil moisture and temperature sensors to model, simulate, and predict how environmental conditions affect landmine detection performance.

Researcher and an army graduate student standing next to "The U.S Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center" sign

Landmine research conducted at the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) by LTC Benjamin Wallen, a graduate student at Colorado School of Mines, and Stacy Howington, a senior research engineer at ERDC.

Landmine Detection

Anti-personnel landmines are difficult to detect. They are small and often contain very little metal. It is difficult to differentiate between a landmine and, for example, a rock.

Success depends on many factors, including the landmine’s physical composition and how long it’s been in the ground. The numerical and analytical models used to find the mines rely on detailed data about conditions in the subsurface.  Wallen and his Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Kate Smits, realized that changing environmental conditions—particularly changes in soil moisture content—were commonly overlooked in developing these models. By gaining a greater understanding of these dynamic environmental conditions, Wallen thought he could better calibrate the numerical models used in detection technologies such as ground penetrating radar.

Researcher and army engineer student working on an installation site

Installing METER sensors at landmine detection field site at the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) by LTC Benjamin Wallen and Matthew Geheran, a student engineer at ERDC.


The goal of Wallen’s research was to improve understanding of the complex flow processes of water, water vapor, and air in the shallow subsurface.  He installed soil moisture and temperature sensors in a field site in order to understand how landmines buried at different depths affect spatial patterns of soil moisture.  He compared holes with mines at a shallow depth (2.5 cm) to more deeply buried mines (10 cm).  He also measured the environmental response to shallow empty holes roughly the size that you’d dig for the placement of a mine.  He realized if there was an identifiable response between a disturbed hole with nothing in it and a hole with a mine buried, researchers would be able to do experiments with different soils in a lab without needing a buried landmine in order to investigate the environmental response associated with a buried landmine.


Wallen was able to see differences in the “with mine” and “without mine” treatments.  He says, “The soil moisture in the disturbed soil 2.5 cm below the surface with no landmine inserted matched very well to a shallow-buried mine.  The only time it really deviated was when there was a saturation event. At that point, there was a break from that relationship, but then, in 36 hours, the soil moisture returned to matching very closely between the disturbed soil hole and the shallow-buried mine.”  Wallen says there was also a relationship in the case of the more deeply buried mine. He adds, “For a deeply buried mine, both the soil moisture and temperature in the disturbed soil 2.5 cm below the surface had a strong correlation with the response to the dug, disturbed hole.”

Shallow Buried Mine- Soil Moisture as a Function of Depth diagram

Disturbed and Undisturbed Soil- Soil Moisture as a Function of Depth Diagram

An Array of Sensors is Crucial

Ben says it was important to his study to use a suite of measurement tools that complimented each other.  In addition to soil moisture and temperature sensors, he used an IR camera to detect surface temperature differences prior to the saturation event, during saturation event, and then afterward, helping identify the different scenarios of shallow-buried mines, deep buried mines, and the disturbed soil. He comments, “There are numerous global climate models that may be used to predict evaporation from energy balances in order to understand what is occurring. By combining the sensors in this minefield detection scenario, we were able to really understand what was going on at different depths with soil moisture and temperature, and that enabled us to better understand how the system responds.”

The Next Step

Now that Wallen has done a soil characterization of the site, he wants to incorporate the data into a 3D model to ensure that the model accurately represents the actual physical conditions he’s observed. The next step is modeling under different climatic conditions: seeing what the environmental response is for various mine scenarios in a different soil environment.

Making the World a Safer Place

The goal, according to Wallen, is to provide pertinent information that will improve landmine detection technologies. Understanding how temperature contrast impacts remote sensing technology and understanding how the soil moisture signature impacts ground penetrating radar.  Ben says, “Ideally, this information takes us one step farther in being able to identify potential locations for landmines, but there is a long way to go. This is just one piece of the pie, but every step forward moves us toward the goal of making the world a little bit safer for everyone.”


This research was made possible through sensors provided by Decagon (now METER), funding from the Society of American Military Engineers Denver Metro Post, field site access from the Waterways Experimentation Station (WES), and assistance with equipment and research support from scientists and engineers at the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, MS. Their support and knowledge based upon over a decade of research exploring disturbed soil for threat detection and environmental effects on sensor performance was essential to enable quality research at their site.

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

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

What is the Future of Sensor Technology?

Dr. John Selker, hydrologist at Oregon State University and one of the scientists behind the Trans African Hydro and Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO) project, gives his perspective on the future of sensor technology.

Researcher Pointing to Something while Walking through a Forest

Dr. John Selker (Image:

What sparked your interest in science?

I was kind of an accidental scientist in a sense. I went into water resources having experienced the 1985 drought in Kenya. I saw that water was transformative in the lives of people there. I thought there were lots of things we could do to make a difference, so I wanted to become a water resource engineer. It was during my graduate degree process that I got excited about science.

What was the first sensor you developed?

I’ve been developing sensors for a long time.  I worked at some national labs on teams developing sensors for physics experiments. The first one I developed myself was as an undergraduate student in physics. I was the lab instructor for the class, and I wanted to do something on my own while the students were busy. I made a non-contact bicycle speedometer which was much like an anemometer. I took an ultrasonic emitter, trained it on the tire, and I could get the beat frequency between emitted sound and the backscatter to get the bicycle speed.

What’s the future of sensor technology?


Right now one of the very exciting advances in technology is communication. Having sensors that can communicate back to the scientists immediately makes a huge difference in terms of knowing how things are going, making decisions on the fly, and getting good quality data.  Oftentimes in the past, a sensor would fail and you wouldn’t know about it for months.  Cell phone technology and the ability to run a station on a few AA batteries for years has been the most transformative aspect of technological development.  The sensors themselves also continue to improve: getting smaller and using less energy, and that’s excellent progress as well.

A Picture of a Orange Maple Leaf in the middle of Fall

What often happens is that you install a solar sensor, and then a leaf or a dust grain falls on it, and you lose your accuracy.


I think the next big thing in sensing technology is how to use what we might call “semi-redundant” sensing.  What often happens is that you install a solar sensor, and then a leaf or a dust grain falls on it, and you lose your accuracy.  However, if you had a solar panel and a solar sensor, you could then do comparisons.  Or if you were using a wind sensor and an accelerometer you could also compare data. We now have the computing capability to look at these things synergistically.


What I would say in science is that if we can get a few more zeros: a hundred times more accurate, or ten times more frequent measurements, then it would change our total vision of the world.  So, what I think we’re going to have in the next few years, is another zero in accuracy.  I think we’re going to go from being plus or minus five percent to plus or minus 0.5 percent, and we are going to do that through much more sophisticated intercomparisons of sensors.  As sensors get cheaper, we can afford to have more and more related sensors to make those comparisons.  I think we’re going to see this whole field of data assimilation become a critical part of the proliferation of sensors.

What are your thoughts on the future of sensor technology?

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

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

Take our Soil Moisture Master Class

Six short videos teach you everything you need to know about soil water content and soil water potential—and why you should measure them together.  Plus, master the basics of soil hydraulic conductivity.

Watch it now—>

The Scientific Instrumentation Museum of Horrors

Chris Chambers is the primary technical support scientist at METER.  Deep within the recesses of his office, there is a collection of scientific instrumentation we like to call the “Museum of Horrors”.  It showcases the many instruments that have been mangled and destroyed over the years by insects, animals, or the environment.

Melted Serial Cable sitting on a stone

This serial cable melted when it got too close to a sample heating oven.

We get a few instruments back every year that are burned up in a fire, chewed up by rodents, and occasionally we get one that’s been exploded by lightning. We interviewed Chris to find out how to prevent scientific instrumentation from being damaged or destroyed by these types of natural disasters.

Soil Moisture Sensor that got Eaten by Ants

Beware of ant hills. This soil moisture sensor got eaten by ants.

Animals and insects:

The single most important thing you can do to prevent damage from animals is to protect your cables. You can protect your cables with cable armor, electrical conduit, or PVC pipe. Even better is to place cables in some type of conduit and then bury it.  Keeping things tidy around the data logger and avoiding exposed cables as much as possible will go a long way toward preventing animals and insects from ruining your experiment.

An ECH2010 Laying in Dirt and Chipped by a Shovel

A retired ECH2O10 that was hit by a shovel.


Lightning is not as big of a danger on METER loggers as it is with third party loggers (read about logger grounding here). Where we typically see people run into problems with lightning is when they have long lengths of cable between the data logger and sensor. Long cable runs act like lightning harvesting antennae.  The best thing to do is to keep the cables shorter and do not spread them out in lots of different directions.

TEROS12 with a Bent Needle from Being Pushed into a Rock

This soil moisture sensor was pushed into a rock.


We have a few instruments every year that get burned up in fires, but there is not much you can do about this hazard except for watching for reports of encroaching fires that may be in your surrounding area and evacuating important instrumentation.

Data Logger that was Struck by Lightning Laying in Bark

data logger that was struck by lighting.


The worst killer of data loggers is flooding.  We have a lot of customers that try and bury their loggers, and that’s generally a terrible idea.  Unless you can guarantee the logger will be waterproofed and put some desiccant inside the box, it will probably end badly.  There are a few scientists out there that have done a really good job of waterproofing, but they generally spend almost as much effort and money waterproofing as they do purchasing the actual logger.

There’s always going to be some risk to your scientific instrumentation because you’re installing it outside, but hopefully, these tips will help you avoid disaster and keep your system out of the museum of horrors.

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Could This Farming Practice Make Food Grown in Fukushima Safe?

March 11, 2015 marks four years since the Fukushima disaster.  What have we learned?

Shortly after the Fukushima disaster, we donated some of our sensors to Dr. Masaru Mizoguchi, a scientist colleague at the University of Tokyo.  He is using the equipment to contrive a more environmentally friendly method to rid rice fields in the villages near Fukushima of the radioactive isotope cesium 137.

Over the last three years, government contractors removed 5 cm of topsoil from fields in order to extract the radioactive isotope. The topsoil has been replaced with sand.  The problem with this method is that it also removes most of the essential soil material, leaving the fields a barren wasteland with little hope of recovery anytime soon.  Topsoil removal may also prove ineffective because wild boars dig up the soil to root for insects and larvae.  This presents a problem in the soil stripping method, as it becomes impossible to determine exactly where the 5 cm boundary exists.  In addition, typhoons and heavy rains erode the sand surface raising safety and stability concerns.

Trash Bags Full of Radioactive Topsoil

Currently, bags full of radioactive topsoil are stacked into pyramids in abandoned fields. An outer black bag layer filled with clean sand is placed around the outside to prevent radiation leakage. The government has promised that these bags will be removed and taken to a repository near the destroyed reactor, but many people don’t believe that will happen as the bags themselves only have a projected life of 3-5 years before they start to degrade. More of these pyramids are being built around Iitate village every day, which is a source of uneasiness for many people that are already cautious about returning.

Dr. Mizoguchi and his colleagues have come up with a new “flooding” method now being tested in smaller fields that can save the topsoil and organic matter while at the same time removing the cesium, making the land usable again within two years.  The new method floods the field and mixes the topsoil with water, leaving the clay particles suspended. Because the cesium binds with the clay, they can drain the water and clay mixture into a pre-dug pit and bury it with a meter of soil after the water has infiltrated.  After one year of using this method, the scientists saw that the cesium levels in the rice had gone down 89%.  And in situ and laboratory instrumentation have shown that two years after cesium removal, the plants’ cesium uptake is negligible, and the food harvested is safe for consumption.

Researcher standing by a sensor station

Dr. Mizoguchi standing by a sensor station containing Decagon sensors

Dr. Mizoguchi is monitoring the surrounding forests with our canopy and soils instrumentation in order to determine if runoff from the wilderness areas will return cesium to the fields and what can be done about it.  He’s figured out a way to network all the instrumentation and upload data directly to the cloud. Still, even if this technology and new methodology work, will people around the world ever feel safe eating food grown near Fukushima?  Dr. Mizoguchi says, “I believe that the soil is recovered scientifically and technically.  However, harmful rumors will remain in the public mind for a long time, even if we show the data that proves safety.  So we must keep showing the facts on Fukushima based on scientific data.”

Resurrection of Fukushima Volunteers using Dr. Mizoguchi's method to rehabilitate small farms

Resurrection of Fukushima volunteers use Dr. Mizoguchi’s method to rehabilitate small farms

Incredibly, each weekend a volunteer organization of retired scientists and university professors use their own money and time to travel out to small village farms.  There they labor to rehabilitate the land using Dr. Mizoguchi’s method.  One of the recipients of this selfless work is a 72-year-old farmer who took his nonagenarian mother and returned to their home to fulfill her heartfelt plea that she could live out her final years outside the shadow of a highrise apartment (see this story in the video above).  We are honored to be a part of this humanitarian effort.

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Are Arduinos Practical and Cost Effective?

Last spring my daughter, Sarah, needed a project for the science fair, and since she has always been interested in scientific measurements, we decided to try and figure out when it was time to water her mother’s plants. Since we’ve fielded a lot of calls from customers asking about using Arduinos (user-programmable microprocessors) lately, I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and give one a try. My preference would have been the speed and simplicity of a METER data logger, but I was curious about how practical and cost-effective this method might be for taking measurements.

Young Girl Concentrating on Helping with the Soldering

Arduino Science Project with my daughter

The Arduino is an inexpensive, user-programmable microprocessor on a circuit board that has exposed analog inputs for measuring voltages and digital ports for measuring incoming digital signals. It can also run displays and is programmed by an Arduino IDE running on your computer.

I purchased a book called Arduino Recipes that taught us the basics of Arduino programming, which was pretty straightforward. The Arduino board itself has rows of pinheaders, so I brought some of the male pinheaders from work and soldered all the wires to them, in preparation to attach the water content sensor. It looked medusa-like with all the wires coming off the pinheaders, but we could then just hook up kid-friendly snap circuits and try some elementary tests to get used to the system.

We hooked up Decagon’s (now METER) analog water content sensor (EC5)  first and started measuring. It has a really nice calibration equation supplied by METER, so we used that for a while to measure water content. We took one of mom’s dry plants and measured before and after watering and used the readings to make a linear relationship between the reading on the sensor when it was dry and the reading on the sensor when it was wet.

Small Cactus in the Window

Our biggest challenge was that Sarah wanted to display this to mom to make sure she knew when to water the plants. So she and I then had to figure out how to integrate an LCD display.

Sarah was excited to get the digital soil moisture sensor integrated because we could then measure water content AND electrical conductivity (EC) to get an idea of the fertilizer in the soil. We used my work colleague’s code to read the digital sensor output, which worked quite well.  It only took a few minutes to insert his piece in the code into our program and start reading water content. Our biggest challenge was that Sarah wanted to display this to mom to make sure she knew when to water the plants. So she and I then had to figure out how to integrate an LCD display. Luckily, all the details were on the Arduino website.  We just cut and pasted the code into our program and then did all the wiring.

Finally, we had it all put together, and we inserted the 5TE digital sensor into the pot. It worked, but the device was large and unwieldy. Mom wasn’t happy that we were putting it right in the middle of her clean living room, but Sarah pointed out that we have to make sacrifices for science, so we put the sensors in the soil, set up the display, and ran it for about a week. Sarah took water content data morning and night and watered it when it reached our “dry” point. She took the finished system to the science fair and was excited to find a few future customers.

Close up on a circuit board

The biggest challenge would be all the details in the system. We’d need a circuit board, a power supply, a data logging interface board, and a box to put it in, and if we were going to set it outside, that box would have to be waterproof.

Are Arduinos practical for use in your experiments?

It depends. Sarah and I found out that it just doesn’t take a lot to integrate a sensor into the Arduino system and be able to make measurements. However, if we were to try the above experiment long-term, the biggest challenge would be all the details in the system. We’d need a circuit board, a power supply, a data logging interface board, and a box to put it in, and if we were going to set it outside, that box would have to be waterproof. We’d also need ways to connect the sensor to the circuitry, and all these things take time and resources. For me, the take-home message was that Arduinos are a lot of fun, and might fit your application exactly the way you want. However, you’ll need time (often a lot of it) to spend making sure it’s waterproof, doing all the programming, writing a code durable enough to fit your field applications, and getting the hardware prepped. In fact, Decagon support staff take calls every week from frustrated do-it-yourselfers who’ve found this is not as easy as it seems. Thus, in my opinion, an EM50 or Campbell Scientific data logger are more practical options than an Arduino-like microprocessor.

Are Arduinos cost effective?

A lot of scientists want to make measurements out in the field with small budgets. I am certainly one of those. Arduinos are $85 versus a complete data logger that costs several hundred dollars. However, people tend to forget that things like labor even cost discrepancies.

So, if you have plenty of time, want the versatility, and you love this stuff, go ahead and make an Arduino sensor, but at the end of the day, the cost shouldn’t be a driver, because there are data loggers that can do the job of an Arduino more simply and quickly, without all the hassle.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to SDI-12″—>

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

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Despite Drawbacks, Scientific Collaboration Pays Off

Though collaboration can fuel innovation and increase the relevance and complexity of the scientific questions we study, I’ve noticed it does have its ups and downs.  The highs and lows we’ve run into on our research projects may help others avoid some of the pitfalls we experienced as many diverse groups tried to learn how to work together.


Researchers discussing science at the Lytle Ranch Preserve, a remarkable desert laboratory located at the convergence of the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert biogeographical regions.

There can be bumps in the road when collaborating with companies who want to test their product. Being at the forefront of innovation means that untested sensors may require patience as you work out all the bugs together. But from my perspective, this is part of the fun.  If we are late adopters of technology, we wouldn’t get to have a say in creating the sensors that will best fit our projects as scientists.

Collaborating scientists can also sometimes run into problems in terms of the stress of setting up an experiment in the time frame that is best for everyone.  During our experiment on the Wasatch Plateau, we had six weeks to get together soil moisture and water potential sensors, but our new GS3 water content, temperature, and EC sensors had never been outside of the lab. In addition, we planned to use an NDVI sensor concept that came out of a workshop idea my father Gaylon had.  We’d made ONE, and it seemed to work, but that is a long way from the 20 we needed for a long-term experiment in a remote location at 3000 meters elevation. In the end, it all worked out, but not without several late nights and a bit of luck.  I remember students holding jackets over me to protect me from the rain as I raced to get the last sensor working.  Then we shut the laptop and ran down the hill, trying to beat a huge thunderstorm that started to pelt the area.


Desert-FMP Researchers at the Lytle Ranch Preserve

Other challenges of scientific collaboration present organizational hardships.  One of the interesting things about the interdisciplinary science in the Desert FMP project is the complexity of the logistics, and maybe that’s a reason why some people don’t do interdisciplinary projects.  We are finding in order to get good data on the effects of small mammals and plants you need to coordinate when you are sampling small mammals and when you’re sampling plants.  Communicating between four different labs is complicated.  Each of the rainout shelters we use cover an area of approximately 1.5 m2 .  That’s not a lot of space when we have two people interested in soil processes and two people interested in plants who all need to know what’s going on underneath the shelter.  Deciding who gets to take a destructive sample and who can only make measurements that don’t change the system is really hard.  The interesting part of the project where we’re making connections between processes has required a lot of coordination, collaboration, and forward-thinking.

In spite of the headaches, my colleague and I continue to think of ways we can help each other in our research.  Maybe we’re gluttons for punishment, but I think the benefits far outweigh the trouble we’ve had.  For instance, in the above-mentioned Desert FMP project we’ve been able to discover that small mammals are influential in rangeland fire recovery (read about it here).  We only discovered that piece of the puzzle because scientists from differing disciplines are working together.  In our Wasatch Plateau project, my scientist colleague said it was extremely helpful for him to be working with an instrumentation expert who could help him with setup and technical issues.  Also, we’ve been able to secure some significant grants in our Cook Farm Project (you can read about it in an upcoming post) and answer some important questions that wouldn’t have occurred to either one of us, if we hadn’t been working together.  In addition, solving problems that have cropped up in our projects has spurred us on to a new idea for analyzing enormous streams of data in near-real time.  (read about it here).

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

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Solving the Problem of Disappearing Science Lab Technicians

One of the hardest issues university researchers face today is the lack of funding for lab technicians. Although it’s frustrating that universities are no longer able to support this type of personnel, can technology close the gap? This is a question we’ve tried to answer in our Desert FMP project in collaboration with BYU.

lab technicians

Source: Job listings for Science Lab Technicians have decreased 38% from March 2013-March 2014

I was talking to my colleague, Rick Gill, several weeks ago, and he had this to say about the disappearance of the previously indispensable lab technician: “We have fewer people in the lab, and the people we have are more expensive. We need to be deliberate in how we use their time. If we can make the entire system more efficient using technology, we’ll use the people we have in a way that is meaningful. In ecology right now, one of the things that we’re beginning to recognize is that the typical process where the lab tech would go out and take ten samples and average them is not what’s interesting. What’s interesting is when it’s been dry for four weeks, and you get a big rain event. This is because the average for four weeks is really low for almost all processes, but the data three days after it rains swamps the previous four weeks. So the average condition means almost nothing in terms of the processes we’re studying for global change. We need technology to take the place of the technician who would be monitoring the weather and trying to guess when the big events will occur.”

To capture these pulses in the Desert FMP project, we’re using a continuous monitoring system that communicates feedback directly to us as the principal investigators. Using advanced analysis techniques, we can painlessly assure that data are being collected properly and important events are never missed. Although we don’t have a technician, the goals of the project are still being met.

What do you think? How have you dealt with the disappearance of the lab tech?

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our