Improving irrigation requires smart data gathering to help growers make better choices in the field. Measuring in situ creates high-resolution, temporal data enabling us to see clearly what’s happening over time—but only at a single point. Satellites show data across a large spatial scale but are hampered by revisit frequencies, clouds, and resolution limits.
Often we see information in a silo, looking at one type of data or another. The challenge to researchers is how to connect across these scales and combine the information to make better irrigation decisions. In this webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell explores the future of irrigation and research he’s been doing with collaborators at Brigham Young University. Learn:
How researchers are combining in situ, drone, and satellite measurements to extract key information
Researchers measure evapotranspiration and precipitation to understand the fate of water—how much moisture is deposited, used, and leaving the system. But if you only measure withdrawals and deposits, you’re missing out on water that is (or is not) available in the soil moisture savings account. Soil moisture is a powerful tool you can use to predict how much water is available to plants, if water will move, and where it’s going to go.
Soil moisture 101 explores soil water content vs. soil water potential
What you need to know
Soil moisture is more than just knowing the amount of water in soil. Learn basic principles you need to know before deciding how to measure it. In this 20-minute webinar, discover:
Why soil moisture is more than just an amount
Water content: what it is, how it’s measured, and why you need it
Water potential: what it is, how it’s different from water content, and why you need it
Water has a dielectric of approximately 80, so if we assume that a dry soil has a dielectric of 5 (VWC = 0.00 m3/m3), then changes to the bulk dielectric read by the soil moisture sensor will be attributable to changes in water content. If you read a METER sensor in air, which has a dielectric constant of 1, you will quite naturally get a negative number.
Improving accuracy of dielectric soil moisture sensors
There are two common causes for negative readings on a METER soil moisture sensor:
1) Poor contact with the soil resulting from improper installation or disturbance
Air gaps next to a sensor will contribute the lower dielectric of air to the measurement resulting in an underestimation of VWC. Air gaps can arise if enough care is not taken to pack soil around the sensor body to approximate native bulk density. Sensors that have been disturbed, such as having a cable tripped over, can also develop air gaps that can result in negative results in dry soils. (To reduce the possibility of air gaps when installing METER sensors, use the new TEROS borehole installation tool)
2) A calibration that is inappropriate for the soil in which the sensor is installed
If the standard mineral calibration is used, an error of ~ 3-4% can be expected in METER sensor readings. Negative numbers can be observed in oven-dry soils (by definition a VWC of 0.0 m3/m3) down to ~ – 0.02 m3/m3 with no malfunction of the sensor. The dielectric constant of the soil is assumed to be 5 and this is a valid assumption in the majority of soils of primarily mineral composition. If your soil has a different dielectric constant, such as can occur in soils with high organic matter content, then the uncertainty in your measurements will increase. This is not a large problem because METER sensors can be calibrated to match a given soil with very little investment in resources.
Want more details?
Watch our webinar titled Why Does My Sensor Read Negative below. This webinar is designed for those who use electromagnetic sensors (capacitance/TDR/FDR) to measure soil water content. Learn about the theory behind the measurements. Dr. Doug Cobos discusses:
What is volumetric water content?
Dielectric measurement theory basics
Dielectric mixing models
Why might a sensor read a negative VWC?
Can a sensor really have 2% VWC accuracy for all soils?
Sources of error in dielectric measurement methods
Improving accuracy of dielectric measurements
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.
The deadline is fast approaching to apply for the 2019 Grant A. Harris Fellowship. The fellowship awards $10,000 in METER research instrumentation to six U.S. or Canadian graduate students studying any aspect of agricultural, environmental, or geotechnical science.
(Image source: https://vimeo.com/69136931)
Camila Tejo Haristoy, former University of Washington grad student, was a Grant A. Harris Fellowship winner. She used METER soil moisture and temperature sensors to study the water holding and temperature patterns of canopy soil in an old-growth Sitka Spruce forest in Washington state. Sitka Spruce tree crowns contain large accumulations of organic matter known as “canopy soil”. These accumulations provide substrate and habitat for a broad community of plants, insects, and other arboreal species. Using tree-climbing techniques, Camila installed soil moisture sensors in the canopy soils of spruce trees from an old-growth stand in the Olympic Peninsula, Washington.
This study characterized for the first time environmental conditions associated with soil mats within the crown of spruce trees, providing a framework for understanding the distribution and activity of epiphytic plants, nutrient dynamics, and associated canopy organisms.
Watch the documentary
Watch a fascinating 7-minute documentary of Camila’s interesting and exciting research. The documentary description: “Camila spends long rainy days climbing into treetops, taking temperature and moisture measurements, and collecting soil and plant samples. In the process, she interacts with a seldom seen, barely understood, and lushly beautiful environment.” (source https://vimeo.com/69136931)
When it comes to measuring soil moisture, site disturbance is inevitable. We may placate ourselves with the idea that soil sensors will tell us something about soil water even if a large amount of soil at the site has been disturbed. Or we might think it doesn’t matter if soil properties are changed around the sensor because the needles are inserted into undisturbed soil.
The key to reducing the impact of site disturbance on soil moisture data is to control the scale of the disturbance.
The fact is that site disturbance does matter, and there are ways to reduce its impact on soil moisture data. Below is an exploration of site disturbance and how researchers can adjust their installation techniques to fight uncertainty in their data.
Non-disturbance methods don’t measure up—yet
During a soil moisture sensor installation, it’s important to generate the least amount of soil disturbance possible in order to obtain a representative measurement. Non-disturbance methods do exist, such as satellite, ground-penetrating radar, and COSMOS. However, these methods face challenges that make them impractical as a single approach to water content. The satellite has a large footprint, but generally measures the top 5-10 cm of the soil, and the resolution and measurement frequency is low. Ground-penetrating radar has great resolution, but it’s expensive, and data interpretation is difficult when a lower boundary depth is unknown. COSMOS is a ground-based, non-invasive neutron method that measures continuously and reaches deeper than a satellite over an area up to 800 meters in diameter. But it is cost-prohibitive in many applications and sensitive to both vegetation and soil, so researchers have to separate the two signals. These methods aren’t yet ready to displace soil moisture sensors, but they work well when used in tandem with the ground truth data that soil moisture sensors can provide.
Different readings in soil moisture sensors are caused by spatial variation in water content (see part 1). These readings provide researchers with valuable information about soil texture, watering patterns, and water use. This week, learn two more strategies to keep in mind when trying to understand the varying patterns of soil moisture at your research or irrigation site.
In some crop studies, it may be important to account for horizontal variation.
Strategy #2: Crop Studies—Representing Variation in a Homogeneous Environment
In some research projects, it will be important to account for horizontal variation. How variable is the water content across a field? We did an experiment in which we set out a transect across a field of bare, tilled soil. Using a METER EC-5soil moisture sensor connected to Procheckmeter, we sampled water content at one-meter intervals over a 58-meter distance. The individual readings are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. You can determine how many samples are necessary to characterize a homogeneous area in about an hour using an EC-5 soil moisture sensor and a ProCheck.
In this data set, the samples are not spatially correlated. The variation is apparent. The mean water content of the data set is 0.198 m3m-3. The standard deviation is 0.023 m3m-3. The coefficient of variation is 12%. Using some simple geostatistics, we determined that three carefully placed sites would adequately represent the variation present in this very homogeneous environment. Of course, in some environments, samples will not be independent. If a semivariogram indicates that some underlying spatial factor influences soil moisture variability, you will have to consider that in your experimental design.
By taking into account the major relevant sources of soil moisture variation, you can plan enough sampling locations to draw conclusions from your data.
On a forested hillside, horizontal variation in soil moisture will obviously be significant. Determining how many sensors to use and where to place them is not at all trivial. Stratified sampling—systematically sampling from more uniform subgroups of a heterogeneous population—may be a better way to deal with this kind of variety. The researcher classifies the site into strata (eg., forested canopy, brush, hillside, valley) and evaluates the number of samples needed to statistically represent the variation present within each stratum.
Many people allow for the variation in soil moisture values that come from the slope, orientation, vegetation, and canopy cover. Some fail to consider the important soil-level variations that come from soil type and density. By taking into account the major relevant sources of soil moisture variation, you can plan enough sampling locations to draw reasonable conclusions from your data. Choose too few locations, and you run the risk of missing the patterns that will lead to higher-level understanding. Choose too many, and not only will you be unable to afford your experiment, but you may also miss the patterns altogether as your experiment overflows with random abundance.
Sometimes researchers want to compare dissimilar sites.
Comparing Data from Different Sites or Strata
Comparing absolute water content numbers can give confusing results. Both measurements are volumetric water content, but 35% here vs. 15% there actually tells us very little. Was the site in sand or clay, or something in between? If conditions at the two sites are virtually identical, the comparison may make some sense. But often, researchers want to compare dissimilar sites.
Figure 2. Changes in VWC with depth (convention: negative values indicate depths below soil surface) for the same time period at Site 1.
Figure 3 below illustrates an experiment we performed in a dryland field where water content measurements were made over a growing season at 30, 60, 90, 120, and 150 cm below a wheat crop. The graph of soil moisture data shows how water is taken up from successively deeper layers. By subtracting one profile from another and summing over the layers where change occurs (for instance, in Figure 2 above, subtract the far left line from the far-right line to see how much water was used from May 10th to August 21st), you can determine the amount of water used by the plants over a particular period. If similar data were taken at different sites or in different strata, these relative values, in terms of quantified water use, could form the basis of solid comparison studies.
Figure 3. Soil water content in winter wheat measured at 30 cm increments
Read more about accurate soil moisture: Can you sample the profile without a profile probe? Find out.
How Do you Know You’re Getting Accurate Soil Moisture?
Researchers and irrigators may wonder if their soil moisture sensors are accurate because probes at different locations in the same field have different water content readings. Different readings in soil moisture sensors are caused by spatial variation in water content. These readings provide researchers valuable information about soil texture, watering patterns, and water use. Here are some ideas and strategies to keep in mind when trying to understand the varying patterns of soil moisture at your research or irrigation site. Click the links for more in-depth information about accurate soil moisture.
One irrigator noticed a few sensors indicating low water content after a heavy rain that had uniformly wetted his vineyard.
Horizontal vs. Vertical Variation
It’s helpful to distinguish variation in the vertical from variation in the horizontal. Most people expect strong vertical variation due to wetting and drying patterns, soil horizonation, and compaction. Water content can vary drastically over distances of only a few centimeters, especially near the soil surface. Horizontal variation is typically less pronounced in a bare or uniformly planted field, and at a given depth, it might be quite small. But surprisingly large variations can exist, indicating isolated patches of sand or clay or differences in topography. One irrigator noticed a few sensors indicating low water content after a heavy rain that had uniformly wetted his vineyard. Knowing that sand has a low field capacity water content, he surmised (correctly) that he had found the sandy areas in the vineyard.
Soil moisture sensors sometimes measure unexpected things.
Because properly installed dielectric soil moisture sensors lie in undisturbed (and therefore unanalyzed) soil, they sometimes measure unexpected things. One researcher buried a probe in what appeared to be a very dry location and was startled to measure 25 to 30% volumetric water content. Those readings made the soil appear saturated, but obviously, it wasn’t. She dug down to the sensor and found a pocket of clay. As she discovered, it is impossible to get much information from an absolute water content measurement without knowing what type of soil the sensor is in.
Since we expect variation, how do we account for it? How many probes are needed to adequately characterize the water content in an application or experiment? There is no simple answer to this question. The answer will be affected by your site, your goals, and how you plan to analyze your data. Here are some things you might consider as you plan.
If a field will be irrigated as a unit, it should be monitored as a unit at one representative spot.
Strategy #1: Irrigation—Use Soil Moisture as an Indicator
What information do you have when you know a field’s volumetric water content? That number independently tells an irrigator very little. Soil moisture can be used like a gauge to show when a field is full and when it needs to be refilled, but the “full” and “empty” are only meaningful in context.
The goals of irrigation are to keep root zone water within prescribed limits and to minimize deep drainage. Understanding and monitoring the vertical variation lets you correlate a real-time graph of water use data with above-ground field conditions and plant water needs. It makes sense to place probes both within and below the root zone.
By contrast, measuring horizontal variation—placing sensors at different spots in the field—is not very helpful. If a field will be irrigated as a unit, it should be monitored as a unit at one representative spot. Because there’s no way to adjust water application in specific spots, there’s no benefit to quantifying spatial variation in the horizontal. Like a float in a gas tank, a set of soil moisture sensors in the right spot will adequately represent the changing soil moisture condition of the whole field.
We recommend a single probe location in each irrigation zone with a minimum of one probe in the root zone and one probe below it. Additional probes at that site, within and below the root zone, will increase the reliability of the information for the irrigation manager, at minimal additional cost.
In two weeks: Learn two more techniques researchers use in crop studies and ecology studies to account for variability in order to obtain an accurate soil moisture picture.
Get more info on applied environmental research in our
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. Read more…
Modern technology has made it possible to sample Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) across a range of scales both in space and in time, from satellites sampling the entire earth’s surface to handheld small sensors that measure individual plants or even leaves. Read more…
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. Read more…
Weather data, used for flight safety, disaster relief, crop and property insurance, and emergency services, contributes over $30 billion in direct value to U.S. consumers annually. Since the 1990’s in Africa, however, there’s been a consistent decline in the availability of weather observations. Read more…
Plants require nutrients to grow, and if we fail to supply the proper nutrients in the proper concentrations, plant function is affected. Fertilizer in too high concentration can also affect plant function, and sometimes is fatal. Read more…
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…
We were inspired by this Freakonomics podcast, which highlights the book, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Problems that are Blocking Progress, to come up with our own answers to the question: Which scientific ideas are ready for retirement? 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…
The secondary products of a lightning strike include electromagnetic pulses, electrostatic pulses, and earth current transients.
Surge suppression components typically perform their suppression function by temporarily short circuiting the voltage between two wires, several devices, or ground.
Electromagnetic pulses are created by the strong magnetic field that is formed by the short term current flow taking place in the lightning strike. With current flows as high as 510kA per microsecond, these currents create very large magnetic fields. These short-term magnetic fields then induce voltages onto wires and cables.
Electrostatic pulses are created by electrostatic fields that accompany a thunderstorm. Any cable suspended above the earth during a thunderstorm is immersed in the electrostatic field and will be electrically charged. Quick changes in the charges stored in both the clouds and earth take place whenever there is a lightning strike. The charge on the cable must now be discharged or neutralized. Unable to find a path to ground (earth), it breaks down insulation and component in its efforts to return to earth.
Earth current transients are the direct result of the neutralization process that immediately follows the end of lightning strike. Neutralization is accomplished by the movement or redistribution of charge along or near the earth’s surface from all the points where the charge had been initially induced to the point where the lightning strike has just terminated. Earth current transients create a shift in potential across a ground plan, often called a “ground bounce”.
Patterns of water replenishment and use give rise to large spatial variations in soil moisture over the depth of the soil profile. Accurate measurements of profile water content are therefore the basis of any water budget study. When monitored accurately, profile measurements show the rates of water use, amounts of deep percolation, and amounts of water stored for plant use.
Three common challenges to making high-quality volumetric water content measurements are:
making sure the probe is installed in undisturbed soil,
minimizing disturbance to roots and biopores in the measurement volume, and
eliminating preferential water flow to, and around, the probe.
All dielectric probes are most sensitive at the surface of the probe. Any loss of contact between the probe and the soil or compaction of soil at the probe surface can result in large measurement errors. Water ponding on the surface and running in preferential paths down probe installation holes can also cause large measurement errors.
Installing soil moisture sensors will always involve some digging. How do you accurately sample the profile while disturbing the soil as little as possible? Consider the pros and cons of five different profile sampling strategies.
Preferential flow is a common issue with commercial profile probes
Profile probes are a one-stop solution for profile water content measurements. One probe installed in a single hole can give readings at many depths. Profile probes can work well, but proper installation can be tricky, and the tolerances are tight. It’s hard to drill a single, deep hole precisely enough to ensure contact along the entire surface of the probe. Backfilling to improve contact results in repacking and measurement errors. The profile probe is also especially susceptible to preferential-flow problems down the long surface of the access tube. (NOTE: The new TEROS Borehole Installation Tool eliminates preferential flow and reduces site disturbance while allowing you to install sensors at depths you choose.)
Trench installation is arduous
Installing sensors at different depths through the side wall of a trench is an easy and precise method, but the actual digging of the trench is a lot of work. This method puts the probes in undisturbed soil without packing or preferential water-flow problems, but because it involves excavation, it’s typically only used when the trench is dug for other reasons or when the soil is so stony or full of gravel that no other method will work. The excavated area should be filled and repacked to about the same density as the original soil to avoid undue edge effects.
Digging a trench is a lot of work.
Augur side-wall installation is less work
Installing probes through the side wall of a single augur hole has many of the advantages of the trench method without the heavy equipment. This method was used by Bogena et al. with EC-5 probes. They made an apparatus to install probes at several depths simultaneously. As with trench installation, the hole should be filled and repacked to approximately the pre-sampling density to avoid edge effects.
An augered borehole disturbs the soil layers, but the relative size of the impact to the site is a fraction of what it would be with a trench installation. A trench may be about 60 to 90 cm long by 40 cm wide. A borehole installation performed using a small hand auger and the TEROS Borehole Installation Tool creates a hole only 10 cm in diameter—just 2-3% of the area of a trench. Because the scale of the site disturbance is minimized, fewer macropores, roots, and plants are disturbed, and the site can return to its natural state much faster. Additionally, when the installation tool is used inside a small borehole, good soil-to-sensor contact is ensured, and it is much easier to separate the horizon layers and repack to the correct soil density because there is less soil to separate.
Multiple-hole installation protects against failures
Digging a separate access hole for each depth ensures that each probe is installed into undisturbed soil at the bottom of its own hole. As with all methods, take care to assure that there is no preferential water flow into the refilled augur holes, but a failure on a single hole doesn’t jeopardize all the data, as it would if all the measurements were made in a single hole.
The main drawback to this method is that a hole must be dug for each depth in the profile. The holes are small, however, so they are usually easy to dig.
Single-hole installation is least desirable
It is possible to measure profile moisture by auguring a single hole, installing one sensor at the bottom, then repacking the hole, while installing sensors into the repacked soil at the desired depths as you go. However, because the repacked soil can have a different bulk density than it had in its undisturbed state and because the profile has been completely altered as the soil is excavated, mixed, and repacked, this is the least desirable of the methods discussed. Still, single-hole installation may be entirely satisfactory for some purposes. If the installation is allowed to equilibrate with the surrounding soil and roots are allowed to grow into the soil, relative changes in the disturbed soil should mirror those in the surroundings.
Bogena, H. R., A. Weuthen, U. Rosenbaum, J. A. Huisman, and H. Vereecken. “SoilNet-A Zigbee-based soil moisture sensor network.” In AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts. 2007. Article link.
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.