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Posts tagged ‘Soil Moisture Sensor’

Avocado Growers in Kenya Fight Drought with Recycled Water Bottle Irrigation

Dr. Brent Clothier, Dr. Steve Green, Roberta Gentile and their research team from Plant and Food Research in New Zealand are working in Kenya to alleviate the poverty of the many small-holder farmers who grow avocados in the Central Highlands of Kenya. These farmers have old and very large avocado trees. The fruit from these trees are purchased by the company Olivado EPZ who presses over 1300 small-holders’ avocados for oil. Dr. Clothier and his team are investigating how to increase the productivity of the farmers’ avocado trees and increase the quality of the fruit so they yield more oil.

Avocados on an avocado tree

Small-holder farmers grow avocados in the Central Highlands of Kenya.

Reducing Leaf Area to Avoid Water Stress

Because of the age and size of these trees, harvesting of the avocados is difficult and time consuming, and through dropped fruit, the quality of the avocados can be comprised. In addition, any dry season water-stress negatively impacts fruit filling. The research team performed some initial remedial pruning of these trees to develop a more manageable and productive tree form. They sought to assess whether the reduced leaf area would enable the trees to avoid water stress during the dry season of January through March between the short and long rainy seasons. They removed 30-40% of the central limbs of the avocado tree to create a more open canopy form.

The team instrumented two trees with heat-pulse sap-flow probes. One tree was left unpruned and the tree in the photo above was pruned. The tree that was pruned was using between 300-400 liters per day, as expected for a tree of that large size. The unpruned tree was smaller in size, and it was using between 150-250 liters per day during May and June. The selective limb pruning resulted in the rate of water-use dropping to 200-300 liters per day, a drop of 100 liters per day.

Pruned avocado tree

The more open canopy form of the pruned avocado tree.

Determining Tree Water Use During Rainy and Dry Seasons

The team also measured the water-use of four trees of different sizes during the entire season using the compensation heat-pulse method and soil water content. They found the trees’ water-use doubled with the arrival of the Short Rains and then began to decline in early January after the rains ended. The trees were under a degree of water stress prior to the arrival of the (short) Short Rains, and as the weak Short Rains ended early, the trees again went into water stress with only occasional respite due to isolated rainstorms in January and February.

This pattern of water stress presents a challenge for sustaining high levels of avocado production. The period of water stress in October is at the time of main flowering, and researchers who were there noted a carpet of aborted flowers on the orchard floor. They also noticed that the fruit were smaller at one farm than those higher up in the Central Highlands where rainfall is higher and more frequent. Thus, to improve production it is imperative to mitigate the impacts of drought, and this needs to be done without reference to any infrastructure for irrigation.

Next week: Read about an inexpensive irrigation solution for these farmers and how the researchers are developing a plan to manage nutrients.

(This article is a summary/compilation of several articles first printed in WISPAS newsletter)

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Soil Moisture Sensors: Why TDR VS. Capacitance May Be Missing the Point (Part 2)

Dr. Colin S. Campbell discusses whether TDR vs. capacitance (see part 1) is the right question, the challenges facing soil moisture sensor technology, and the correct questions to ask before investing in a sensor system.

Image of plants Growing in a Field

It’s easy to overlook the obvious question: what is being measured?

What are You Trying to Measure?

When considering which soil water content sensor will work best for any application, it’s easy to overlook the obvious question: what is being measured?  Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) vs. capacitance is the right question for a researcher who is looking at the dielectric permittivity across a wide measurement frequency spectrum (called dielectric spectroscopy). There is important information in these data, like the ability to measure bulk density along with water content and electrical conductivity. If this is the desired measurement, currently only one technology will do: TDR. The reflectance of the electrical pulse that moves down the conducting rods contains a wide range of frequencies.  When digitized, these frequencies can be separated by fast fourier transform and analyzed for additional information.

The objective for the majority of scientists, however, is to simply monitor soil water content instantaneously or over time, with good accuracy. There are more options if this is the goal, yet there are still pitfalls to consider.

Soil moisture sensor close-up

Considerable research has been devoted to determining which soil moisture sensors meet expectation.

Each Technology Has Challenges

Why would a scientist pay $100+ for a soil volumetric water content (VWC) sensor, when there are hundreds of soil moisture sensors online costing between $5 and $15? This is where knowing HOW water content is measured by a sensor is critical.

Most sensors on home and garden websites work based on electrical resistivity or conductivity. The principle is simple: more water will allow more electrons to flow. So conductivity will change with soil water content. But, while it’s possible to determine whether water content has changed with this method, absolute calibration is impossible to achieve as salts in the soil water will change as the water content changes. A careful reading of sensor specs will sometimes uncover the measurement method, but sometimes, price is the only indication.

Somewhere between dielectric spectroscopy and electrical resistance are the sensors that provide simple, accurate water content measurement. Considerable research has been devoted to determining which of these meet expectation, and the results suggest that Campbell Scientific, Delta-T, Stevens, Acclima, Sentek, and METER (formerly Decagon Devices), provide accurate sensors vetted by soil scientists. The real challenge is installing the sensors correctly and connecting them to a system that meets data-collection and analysis needs.

Installation Techniques Affect Accuracy

Studies show there is a difference between mid-priced sensor accuracy when tested in laboratory conditions. But, in the field, sensor accuracy is shown to be similar for all good quality probes, and all sensors benefit from site-specific soil calibration. Why? The reason is associated with the principle upon which they function. The electromagnetic field these sensors produce falls off exponentially with distance from the sensor surface because the majority of the field is near the electrodes. So, in the lab, where test solutions form easily around sensor rods, there are differences in probe performance.  In a natural medium like soil, air gaps, rocks, and other detritus reduce the electrode-to-soil contact and tend to reduce sensor to sensor differences. Thus, picking an accurate sensor is important, but a high-quality installation is even more critical.

Crops with a blue sky background

Improper installation is the largest barrier to accuracy.

Which Capacitance Sensor Works Best?

Sensor choice should be based on how sensors will be installed, the nature of the research site, and the intended collection method. Some researchers prefer a profile sensor, which allows instruments to be placed at multiple depths in a single hole. This may facilitate fast installation, but air gaps in the auger pilot hole can occur, especially in rocky soils. Fixing this problem requires filling the hole with a slurry, resulting in disturbed soil measurements. Still, profile sensor installation must be evaluated against the typical method of digging a pit and installing sensors into a sidewall. This method is time consuming and makes it more difficult to retrieve sensors.

New technology that allows sensor installation in the side of a 10 cm borehole may give the best of both worlds, but still requires backfill and has the challenge of probe removal at the end of the experiment.

The research site must also be a consideration. If the installation is close to main power or easily reached with batteries and solar panels, your options are open: all sensors will work. But, if the site is remote, picking a sensor and logging system with low power requirements will save time hauling in solar panels or the frustration of data loggers running out of batteries.

ZL6 Data Logger

Often times it comes down to convenience.

Data Loggers Can Be a Limitation

Many manufacturers design data loggers that only connect to the sensors they make. This can cause problems if the logging system doesn’t meet site needs. All manufacturers mentioned above have sensors that will connect to general data loggers such as Campbell Scientific’s CR series. It often comes down to convenience: the types of sensor needed to monitor a site, the resources needed to collect and analyze the data, and site maintenance. Cost is an issue too, as sensors range from $100 to more than $3000.

Successfully Measure Water Content

The challenge of setting up and monitoring soil water content is not trivial, with many choices and little explanation of how each type of sensor will affect the final results. There are a wealth of papers that review the critical performance aspects of all the sensors discussed, and we encourage you to read them. But, if soil water content is the goal, using one of the sensors from the manufacturers named above, a careful installation, and a soil-specific calibration, will ensure a successful, accurate water content measurement.

For an in-depth comparison of TDR versus capacitance technology, read: Dielectric Probes Vs. Time Domain Reflectometers

Watch the webinar

In this webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell discusses the details regarding different ways to measure soil moisture and the theory behind the measurements.  In addition, he provides examples of field research and what technology might apply in each situation. The measurement methods covered are gravimetric sampling, dielectric methods including TDR and FDR/capacitance, neutron probe, and dual needle heat pulse.

 

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”—>

Improved Methods Save Money in Future Borehole Thermal Energy Storage Design

Globally, the gap between the energy production and consumption is growing wider. To promote sustainability, University of California San Diego PhD candidate and ASCE GI Sustainability in Geotechnical Engineering committee member, Tugce Baser, Dr. John McCartney, Associate Professor, and their research team, Dr. Ning Lu, Professor at Colorado School of Mines and Dr. Yi Dong, Postdoctoral Researcher at Colorado School of Mines, are working on improving methods for borehole thermal energy storage (BTES), a system which stores solar heat in the soil during the summer months for reuse in homes during the winter. Baser says, “We are running out of finite energy resources. We need to come up with new strategies to use free and renewable energy resources such as solar energy for a sustainable future.”

Borehole thermal energy storage

Baser’s BTES design.

How it works

BTES systems are an approach to provide efficient renewable resource-based thermal energy to heat buildings. They are configured to store thermal energy collected from solar thermal panels during the summer and discharge the heat to buildings during the winter. They function by circulating a fluid within a closed-loop pipe network installed in vertical boreholes to inject heat collected from solar thermal panels. During winter, cold fluid is circulated through the heat exchangers to recover the heat from the subsurface and distribute it to the buildings. Baser explains, “The subsurface provides an excellent medium to store this heat due to the relatively lower thermal conductivity and lower specific heat capacity especially when the soil layer is in the vadose zone. Lower thermal properties allow us to concentrate the heat in a specific array and the heat losses to the environment are potentially low. These systems typically include an insulation layer and a hydraulic barrier near the ground surface to reduce heat and vapor losses to the atmosphere.”

Image depicts BTES construction

BTES construction.

Why do we need improved methods?

Baser and her team are trying to improve the understanding of heat storage mechanisms and evaluate changes in the rate of heat transfer and heat storage in the vadose zone where the soil is unsaturated. The goal of the project is improve conventional methods by generating models to fit different soil types and situations.  She says, “The European community introduced us to the borehole thermal energy storage systems to provide heat specifically for domestic use, but there is still a chance for us to design them more efficiently by having a full understanding of the thermal response of these systems that is specific to the ground material and subsurface conditions. The primary objective of this research is to understand the mechanisms of coupled heat transfer and water flow in unsaturated soil profiles during the heat injection and subsequent heat extraction into these different arrays and different dimensions of borehole heat exchangers.”

Solar panels propped up outside of a ware house

Solar panels.

Baser and her team working on designing numerical models based on finite element method which improve some of the numerical models in the literature used to characterize the thermal response of the systems. The new models add new considerations, such as the heat pipe effect in different soil types. Baser explains, “Because thermal and hydraulic properties of soils are highly coupled and are specific to soils, the thermal response of a BTES system will be different when it is installed in different types of soils. For example, you see the heat pipe effect where there is evaporation and subsequent condensation in fine grained soils rather than coarse soils because in coarse grain soils the pore characteristics are different. The duration of the heat pipe effect (or convective cycle) is longer in fine grain soils. We conclude that considering coupled heat transfer and water flow in the thermal response of Borehole Thermal Energy Storage system is important.”

Image of a hole which is being used for an in-group heat exchanger

In-ground heat exchanger

Experiments in the field and in the lab help verify the new models

To fully understand heat transfer mechanisms and water flow in unsaturated soils, the research team installed two different SBTS systems at different scales, one in Golden, Colorado School of Mines campus, and the other at the UC San Diego research campus.  Baser says, “The subsurface characteristics of both sites are different, and this gives us the opportunity to investigate the impact of the different soil layers on the thermal response experimentally in a full scale. In addition, the scales of each Borehole Thermal Energy Storage system are different, and we also apply different heat injection rates. We have used these data to further validate our coupled heat transfer and water flow model so that we can use it for design purposes.”

Diagram of soil moisture sensor locations

Soil moisture sensor locations.

Baser started with laboratory heating experiments, in which soil in a large tank is heated by heat exchangers. She installed soil moisture sensors to measure volumetric water content and the temperature and then used the KD2 pro thermal property analyzer (recently updated to TEMPOS) to monitor thermal properties during heating experiments to characterize the coupled thermo-hydraulic relationships. For the field experiments the team uses soil moisture sensors equipped with temperature sensors and the KD2 pro to monitor subsurface temperature fluctuation because during the summertime the air temperature is higher, thus ambient air temperature fluctuation and penetration may become significant.

Baser also uses thermistor strings that include six thermistors at different depths and thermistor pipe plugs, voltage input modules, and flow meters.  She says, “Thermistor pipe plugs and flow meters are used in the manifold to monitor the inlet and outlet fluid temperatures and flow rates in each loop to calculate heat transfer rate into the ground. Flow meters were installed to control flow in each loop because you don’t want to over or underload the borehole loops. The amount of energy that you collect from the solar loop and the amount of energy that you inject into the ground can be used to define the efficiency of the system.” Baser says thermistor strings help monitor the ground temperature during the summer heat loading at different depths. They’re also used to monitor borehole wall temperature over time. The team installed one thermistor string 9 meters away from the heat storage array to see if far field is affected by the heat transfer within the array.

Image of a borehole with insulation to prevent heat loss to the environment

Insulation prevents heat loss to the environment.

The new models will save money in future Borehole Thermal Energy Storage design

Baser says building numerical models and solving them was very complicated and time consuming, but they’ve had good results. She explains, “We’ve recently proved, both experimentally and numerically, that considering coupled thermal and hydraulic relationships are very important for thermal response analysis. Thus, our recommendation is that it’s fine to use the analytical models and user-friendly numerical models that consider constant thermal properties in the design analyses for saturated soils. However, in unsaturated soils, there is a very high possibility that the contribution of heat transfer evaporation and condensation would be missing and the Borehole Thermal Energy Storage system would be oversized, costing a significant amount of money. When dealing with soils in the vadose zone, coupled thermo-hydraulic constitutive relationships in the modeling efforts need to be considered.”

You can learn more about Tugce Baser’s research here.

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

Soil Moisture Sensors: Why TDR vs. Capacitance May Be Missing the Point

Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) vs. capacitance is a common question for scientists who want to measure volumetric water content (VWC) of soil, but is it the right question?  Dr. Colin S. Campbell, soil scientist, explains some of the history and technology behind TDR vs. capacitance and the most important questions scientists need to ask before investing in a sensor system.

Image of a telephone poll standing in front of the ocean

TDR began as a technology the power industry used to determine the distance to a break in broken power lines.

Clarke Topp

In the late 1970s, Clarke Topp and two colleagues began working with a technology the power industry used to determine the distance to a break in broken power lines.  Time Domain Reflectometers (TDR) generated a voltage pulse which traveled down a cable, reflected from the end, and returned to the transmitter. The time required for the pulse to travel to the end of the cable directed repair crews to the correct trouble spot. The travel time depended on the distance to the break where the voltage was reflected, but also on the dielectric constant of the cable environment.  Topp realized that water has a high dielectric constant (80) compared to soil minerals (4) and air (1).  If bare conductors were buried in soil and the travel time measured with the TDR, he could determine the dielectric constant of the soil, and from that, its water content.  He was thus able to correlate the time it took for an electromagnetic pulse to travel the length of steel sensor rods inserted into the soil to volumetric water content. Despite his colleagues’ skepticism, he proved that the measurement was consistent for several soil types.

Close up of solar panels

TDR sensors consume a lot of power. They may require solar panels and larger batteries for permanent installations.

TDR Technology is Accurate, but Costly

In the years since Topp et al.’s (1980) seminal paper, TDR probes have proven to be accurate for measuring water content in many soils. So why doesn’t everyone use them? The main reason is that these systems are expensive, limiting the number of measurements that can be made across a field. In addition, TDR systems can be complex, and setting them up and maintaining them can be difficult.  Finally, TDR sensors consume a lot of power.  They may require solar panels and larger batteries for permanent installations. Still, TDR has great qualities that make these types of sensors a good choice.  For one thing, the reading is almost independent of electrical conductivity (EC) until the soil becomes salty enough to absorb the reflection.  For another, the probes themselves contain no electronics and are therefore good for long-term monitoring installations since the electronics are not buried and can be accessed for servicing, as needed.  Probes can be multiplexed, so several relatively inexpensive probes can be read by one set of expensive electronics, reducing cost for installations requiring multiple probes.

Close up of cracked soil

Many modern capacitance sensors use high frequencies to minimize effects of soil salinity on readings.

Advances in Electronics Enable Capacitance Technology

Dielectric constant of soil can also be measured by making the soil the dielectric in a capacitor.  One could use parallel plates, as in a conventional capacitor, but the measurement can also be made in the fringe field around steel sensor rods, similar to those used for TDR.  The fact that capacitance of soil varies with water content was known well before Topp and colleagues did their experiments with TDR.  So, why did the first attempt at capacitance technology fail, while TDR technology succeeded? It all comes down to the frequency at which the measurements are made.  The voltage pulse used for TDR has a very fast rise time.  It contains a range of frequencies, but the main ones are around 500 MHz to 1 GHz.  At this high frequency, the salinity of the soil does not affect the measurement in soils capable of growing most plants.  

Like TDR, capacitance sensors use a voltage source to produce an electromagnetic field between metal electrodes (usually stainless steel), but instead of a pulse traveling down the rods, positive and negative charges are briefly applied to them. The charge stored is measured and related to volumetric water content. Scientists soon realized that how quickly the electromagnetic field was charged and discharged was critical to success.  Low frequencies led to large soil salinity effects on the readings.  This new understanding, combined with advances in the speed of electronics, meant the original capacitance approach could be resurrected. Many modern capacitance sensors use high frequencies to minimize effects of soil salinity on readings.  

Image of Mars on a close up

NASA used capacitance technology to measure water content on Mars.

Capacitance Today is Highly Accurate

With this frequency increase, most capacitance sensors available on the market show good accuracy. In addition, the circuitry in them can be designed to resolve extremely small changes in volumetric water content, so much so, that NASA used capacitance technology to measure water content on Mars. Capacitance sensors are lower cost because they don’t require a lot of circuitry, allowing more measurements per dollar. Like TDR, capacitance sensors are reasonably easy to install. The measurement prongs tend to be shorter than TDR probes so they can be less difficult to insert into a hole. Capacitance sensors also tend to have lower energy requirements and may last for years in the field powered by a small battery pack in a data logger.   

In two weeks: Learn about challenges facing both types of technology and why the question of TDR vs. Capacitance may not be the right question.

Watch the webinar

In this webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell discusses the details regarding different ways to measure soil moisture and the theory behind the measurements.  In addition, he provides examples of field research and what technology might apply in each situation. The measurement methods covered are gravimetric sampling, dielectric methods including TDR and FDR/capacitance, neutron probe, and dual needle heat pulse.

 

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

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”—>

Where Will the Next Generation of Scientists Come From?

The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program is an international science and education program that provides students and the public worldwide with the opportunity to participate in data collection and the scientific process.

Smiling students standing in a huge line

GLOBE has a huge impact in schools around the world.

Its mission is to promote the teaching and learning of science, enhance community environmental literacy and stewardship, and provide research quality environmental observations.  The GLOBE program works closely with agencies such as NASA to do projects like validation of SMAP data and the Urban Heat Island/Surface Temperature Student Research Campaign.  The figure below shows the impact GLOBE is having in schools worldwide.

Places, schools, teachers, pre-service, students, alumni, and GLOBE observations chart

Dixon Butler, former GLOBE Chief Scientist, is excited about the recent African project GLOBE is now participating in called the TAHMO project.  He says, “Right now, in Kenya and Nigeria, GLOBE schools are putting in over 100 new  mini-weather stations to collect weather data, and all that usable data will flow into the GLOBE database.”

Students standing together in front of their school

Participating in real science at a young age gets youth more ready to be logical, reasoning adults.

Why Use Kids to Collect Data?

Dixon says kids do a pretty good job taking research quality environmental measurements.  Working with agencies like NASA gets them excited about science, and participating in real science at a young age gets them more ready to be logical, reasoning adults.  He explains, “The 21st century requires a scientifically literate citizenry equipped to make well-reasoned choices about the complex and rapidly changing world. The path to acquiring this type of literacy goes beyond memorizing scientific facts and conducting previously documented laboratory experiments to acquiring scientific habits of mind through doing hands-on, observational science.”

Dixon says when GLOBE started, the plan was to have the kids measure temperature.  But one science teacher, Barry Rock, who had third-grade students using Landsat images to do ozone damage observations, called the White House and said, “Kids can do a lot more than measure temperature.” He gave a presentation at the White House where he showed a video of two third grade girls looking at Landsat imagery. They were discussing their tree data, and at one point, one said to the other, ‘That’s in the visible. Let’s look at it in the false color infrared.’  At that point, Barry became the first chief scientist of GLOBE, and he helped set up the science and the protocols that got the program started.

Students standing around and talking before class

GLOBE uses online and in-person training and protocols to be sure the students’ data is research quality.

Can GLOBE Data be Used by Scientists?

GLOBE uses online and in-person training and protocols to be sure the students’ data is research quality.  Dixon explains, “There was a concern that these data be credible, so the idea was to create an intellectual chain of custody where scientists would write the protocols in partnership with an educator so they would be written in an educationally appropriate way.  Then the teachers would be trained on those protocols. The whole purpose is to be sure scientists have confidence that the data being collected by GLOBE is usable in research.”

Today GLOBE puts out a Teacher’s’ Guide and the protocols have increased from 17 to 56.  The soil area went from just a temperature and moisture measurement to a full characterization.  Dixon says, “We’ve been trying to improve it ever since, and I think we’re getting pretty good at it.”  

Smiling student looking at the camera

GLOBE students were the only ones going around looking up at the sky doing visual categorization of clouds and counting contrails. It was just no longer being done, except by these students.

What About the Skeptics?

If you ask Dixon how he deals with skeptics of the data collected by the kids, he says, “I tell them to take a scientific approach.  Check out the data, and see if they’re good.  One year, a GLOBE investigator found a systematic error In U-tube maximum/minimum thermometers mounted vertically, which had been in use for over a century, that no one else found. The GLOBE data were good enough to look at and find the problem.  There are things the data are good for and things they’re not good for. Initially, we wanted these data to be used by scientists in the literature, and there have been close to a dozen papers, but I would argue that GLOBE hasn’t yet gotten to the critical mass of data that would make that easier.”

GLOBE did have enough cloud data, however, to be used in an important analysis of geostationary cloud data where the scientist compared GLOBE student data with satellite data Dixon adds, “GLOBE students were the only ones going around looking up at the sky doing visual categorization of clouds and counting contrails. It was just no longer being done, except by GlOBE students. Now GLOBE has developed the GLOBE Observer app that lets everyone take and report cloud observations.”

Young boys smiling at the camera together

Young minds need to experience the scientific approach of developing hypotheses, taking careful, reproducible measurements, and reasoning with data.

What’s the Future of GLOBE?

Dixon says GLOBE’s goal is to raise the next generation of intelligent constituents in the body politic. He says, “I thought about this a lot when I worked for the US Congress.  In addition to working with GLOBE, I now have a non-profit grant-making organization called YLACES with the objective of helping kids to learn science by doing science.  Young minds need to experience the scientific approach of developing hypotheses, taking careful, reproducible measurements, and reasoning with data. Inquiries should begin early and grow in quality and sophistication as learners progress in literacy, numeracy, and understanding scientific concepts. In addition to fostering critical thinking skills, active engagement in scientific research at an early age also builds skills in mathematics and communications. These kids will grow up knowing how to think scientifically. They’ll ask better questions, and they’ll be harder to fool.   I think that’s what the world needs, and I see the environment and science as the easiest path to get there.”

Learn more about GLOBE and its database here and about YLACES at www.ylaces.org.

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

Get more information on applied environmental research in our

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.

Image of the Bavarian Alps with snow on top

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.”

Two snorkels protecting a data logger from relative humidity

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.”

Fog in trees in a pine forest

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.

Share Your Hacks with Us

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

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

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

German Researchers Directly Measure Climate Change Effects Using Lysimeter Network (part 2)

In Germany, scientists are measuring the effects of tomorrow’s climate change with a vast network of 144 large lysimeters (see part 1).  This week, read about the intense precision required to move the soil-filled lysimeters, how problems are prevented, and how the data is used by scientists worldwide.

Image of truck moving the Lysimeters

Moving the lysimeters

Moving the Lysimeters is not Easy

As noted previously, one TERENO lysimeter weighs between 2.5 and 3.5 tons depending on the soil and the water saturation, so the problem of transporting it without compacting the soil or causing cracks in the soil column caused Georg many sleepless nights.   He explains, “We found a truck with an air venting system, which could prevent vibrations in a wide range. We made a wooden support structure, bought 100 car springs, and loaded the lysimeter on this frame.  After some careful preparation and design adjustments, I told the truck driver, ‘take care, I’m recording the entire drive with my acceleration sensor and data logger so I can see if you are driving faster than I allow.”  Each lysimeter soil surface level was marked to check if the lysimeter was rendered useless due to transport, and the truck was not allowed to go over a railway or a bump in the road faster than 2 km per hour to avoid the consequences of compaction and cracking.

Image of a Tensiometer sticking out of the ground

Tensiometers and soil moisture sensors monitor the hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters.

Preventing Problems

Understanding the water potential inside the intact lysimeter core is not trivial. Georg and his team use maintenance-free tensiometers, which overcome the typical problem of cavitation in dry conditions as they don’t need to be refilled. Still, this parameter is so critical they installed 3 of them and took the median, which can be weighed in case one of the sensors is not working. Georg says, “There is a robust algorithm behind measuring the true field situation with tensiometers.”

What Happens With the Data?

Georg hopes that many researchers will take advantage of the TERENO lysimeter network data (about 4,000 parameters stored near-continuously on a web server). He says, “Researchers have free access to the data and can publish it. It’s wonderful because it’s not only the biggest project of its kind, each site is well-maintained, and all measurements are made with the same equipment, so you can compare all the data.”  (Contact Dr. Thomas Puetz for access). Right now, over 400 researchers are working with those data, which has been used in over 200 papers.

Picture depicting a Lysimeter plant in a garden with a CO2 fumigation facility located in Austria

Lysimeter plant with CO2 fumigation facility in Austria.

What’s the Future?

Georg thinks 40,000 data points arriving every minute will give scientists plenty of information to work on for years to come. Each year, more TERENO standard lysimeters are installed to enlarge the database. The ones in TERENO have a 1 m2 surface area, which is fine for smaller plants like wheat or grass, but is not a good dimension for big plants like trees and shrubs. Georg points out that you have to take into account effort versus good data. Larger lysimeters present exponentially larger challenges. He admits that, “With the TERENO project, they had to make a compromise. All the lysimeters are cut at a depth of 1.5 m. If there is a mistake, it is the same with all the lysimeters, so we can compare on climate change effects.”  He adds, “After six years, we now have a standard TERENO lysimeter design installed over 200 times around the world, where data can be compared through a database, enhancing our understanding of water in an era of climate change.”

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Read about 12 large Ecotron weighing lysimeters measuring climate change at the University of Hasselt.

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German Researchers Directly Measure Climate Change Effects Using TERENO Lysimeters

In Germany, scientists are measuring the effects of tomorrow’s climate change with a vast network of 144 large lysimeters.

Image of Lysimeters in there installation site

The goal of these lysimeters is to measure energy balance, water flux and nutrition transport, emission of greenhouse gases, biodiversity, and solute leaching into the groundwater.

In 2008, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology began to develop a climate feedback monitoring strategy at the Ammer catchment in Southern Bavaria. In 2009, the Research Centre Juelich Institute of Agrosphere, in partnership with the Helmholtz-Network TERENO (Terrestrial Environmental Observatories) began conducting experiments in an expanded approach.  

Throughout Germany, they set up a network of 144 large lysimeters with soil columns from various climatic conditions at sites where climate change may have the largest impact.  In order to directly observe the effects of simulated climate change, soil columns were taken from higher altitudes with lower temperatures to sites at a lower altitude with higher temperatures and vice versa. Extreme events such as heavy rain or intense drought were also experimentally simulated.

Image of Lysimeter locations in Germany

Lysimeter locations in Germany

Georg von Unold, whose company (formerly UMS, now METER) built and installed the lysimeters comments on why the project is so important. “From a scientific perspective, we accept changes for whatever reason they may happen, but it is our responsibility to carefully monitor and predict how these changes cause floods, droughts, and disease. We need to be prepared to react if and before they affect us.”

How Big Are the Lysimeters?

Georg says that each lysimeter holds approximately 3,000 kilograms of soil and has to be moved under compaction control with specialized truck techniques.  He adds,The goal of these lysimeters is to measure energy balance, water flux and nutrition transport, emission of greenhouse gases, biodiversity, and solute leaching into the groundwater. Researchers measure the conditions of water balance in the natural soil surrounding the lysimeters, and then apply those same conditions inside the lysimeters with suction ceramic cups that lay across the bottom of the lysimeter.  These cups both inject and take out water to mimic natural or artificial conditions.”

Image of Lysimeters in a field and a diagram of whats inside the Lysimeters

Researchers use water content sensors and tensiometers to monitor hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters.

Researchers monitor the new climate situation with microenvironment monitors and count the various grass species to see which types become dominant and which might disappear. They use water content sensors and tensiometers to monitor hydraulic conditions inside the lysimeters. The systems also use a newly-designed system to inject CO2 into the atmosphere around the plants and soil to study increased carbon effects.  Georg says, “We developed, in cooperation with the HBLFA Raumberg Gumpenstein, a new, fast-responding CO2 enrichment system to study CO2 from plants and soil respiration. We analyze gases like CO2, oxygen, and methane. The chambers are rotated from one lysimeter to another, working 24 hours, 7 days a week.  Each lysimeter is exposed only for a few minutes so as not to change the natural environment.”

Next week:  Read about the intense precision required to move the soil-filled lysimeters, how problems are prevented, and how the data is used by scientists worldwide.

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Top Five Blog Posts in 2016

In case you missed them the first time around, here are the most popular Environmental Biophysics.org blog posts in 2016.

Lysimeters Determine if Human Waste Composting can be More Efficient

Waste in the water canals

In Haiti, untreated human waste contaminating urban areas and water sources has led to widespread waterborne illness.  Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) has been working to turn human waste into a resource for nutrient management by turning solid waste into compost.  Read more

Estimating Relative Humidity in Soil: How to Stop Doing it Wrong

Image of a researchers hand holding soil

Estimating the relative humidity in soil?  Most people do it wrong…every time.  Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell shares a lesson on how to correctly estimate soil relative humidity from his new book, Soil Physics with Python, which he recently co-authored with Dr. Marco Bittelli.  Read more.

How Many Soil Moisture Sensors Do You Need?

Road winding through a mountain pass

“How many soil moisture sensors do I need?” is a question that we get from time to time. Fortunately, this is a topic that has received substantial attention by the research community over the past several years. So, we decided to consult the recent literature for insights. Here is what we learned.

Data loggers: To Bury, or Not To Bury

Data Logger in an orange bury-able box sitting on next to installation site

Globally, the number one reason for data loggers to fail is flooding. Yet, scientists continue to try to find ways to bury their data loggers to avoid constantly removing them for cultivation, spraying, and harvest.  Chris Chambers, head of Sales and Support at Decagon Devices always advises against it. Read more

Founders of Environmental Biophysics:  Champ Tanner

Image of Champ Tanner

Image: http://soils.wisc.edu/people/history/champ-tanner/

We interviewed Gaylon Campbell, Ph.D. about his association with one of the founders of environmental biophysics, Champ Tanner.  Read more

And our three most popular blogs of all time:

Do the Standards for Field Capacity and Permanent Wilting Point Need to Be Reexamined?

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We asked scientist, Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell, which scientific idea he thinks impedes progress.  Here’s what he had to say about the standards for field capacity and permanent wilting point.  Read more

Environmental Biophysics Lectures

Close up of a leaf on a tree

During a recent semester at Washington State University, a film crew recorded all of the lectures given in the Environmental Biophysics course. The videos from each Environmental Biophysics lecture are posted here for your viewing and educational pleasure.  Read more

Soil Moisture Sensors In a Tree?

Close up image of tree bark

Soil moisture sensors belong in the soil. Unless, of course, you are feeling creative, curious, or bored. Then maybe the crazy idea strikes you that if soil moisture sensors measure water content in the soil, why couldn’t they be used to measure water content in a tree?  Read more

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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 running through 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.”  

Image of a white van parked on a road next to a trench built for burying sensor cables

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)

Vegetation in the Secchia River Floodplain

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.

Image of a research team using an installation tool to install water content 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.”

Image researcher placing an MPS-6 into a cylinder of soil

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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