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Posts tagged ‘Soils’

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.

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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”—>

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New Infiltrometer Helps City of Pittsburgh Limit Traditional Stormwater Infrastructure (Part 2)

To save the aesthetics of Dellrose Street, an aging, 900 ft. long, brick road, the city of Pittsburgh wanted to limit traditional stormwater infrastructure (see part 1). Jason Borne, a stormwater engineer for ms consultants and his team decided permeable pavers was a viable option, and used two different types of infiltrometers to determine soil infiltration potential.  Here’s how they compared.

Looking down the street where researchers are doing their installation

Setting up the infiltrometers.

Shortened Test Times Allow Design Changes on the Fly

Though most of the subsoil was a clay urban fill, there was a distinct transition between that clay material to a broken shale/clay mixture.  Borne says, “After excavation, it rained, and we saw that the water was disappearing through the broken shale/clay material.  When we did the infiltration tests, the broken shale/clay showed a higher infiltration potential than the clay fill material.  That led us to modify the design of the subsurface flow barriers based on specific observed infiltration rates of the subsoils. Where the tests showed higher hydraulic conductivity values, we were able to rely on infiltration entirely to remove the water from behind the check dams.”  Borne adds that in the areas where infiltration was poor, they augmented infiltration with a slow release concept. “We put some weep holes in the flow barrier and let the water trickle out down to the next barrier and so on.  Basically, the automated SATURO infiltrometer allowed us to do many tests in a short amount of time to establish a threshold of where good infiltrating soils and poor infiltrating soils were located.  This enabled us to change the design on the fly.  The double ring infiltrometer takes significantly more time to do a test, and time is of the essence when the contractor wants to backfill the area and get things moving. It was nice to have a tool that got us the information we needed more rapidly.”

Image of a SATURO double ring infiltrometer

SATURO Infiltrometer

How did the Double Ring and SATURO Compare?

Borne says the SATURO Infiltrometer was faster and reduced the possibility of human error.  He adds, “We liked the idea of it being very standardized. The automated plot of flux over time was also of great interest to us, because we could see a trend, or anomalies that might invalidate the results we were getting. The double ring infiltrometer takes a long time to achieve a state of equilibrium, and it’s hard to know when that occurs. You’re following the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection suggested guidelines, but they’re very generalized.  To me it doesn’t suit all situations.  What we found with the SATURO infiltrometer is it records information at very discreet intervals, plots a curve of the flux over time, and when it levels out, you basically achieve equilibrium.  You get to that state of equilibrium faster.  There’s a water savings, but there’s also a time savings.  And there’s the satisfaction of getting standardized results rather than the possibility of each technician applying the principles in a slightly different way, as they might with the double ring infiltrometer.”

Borne and his team were ultimately able to prepare a permeable paver street design which allowed for the exclusion of traditional storm sewer infrastructure, reducing both capital costs and long-term maintenance life cycle costs. The permeable paver concept is intended to provide a template for the city of Pittsburgh to apply to the future reconstruction of other city streets.

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

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New Infiltrometer Helps City of Pittsburgh Limit Traditional Stormwater Infrastructure

Though difficult and expensive to restore, the brick-paved streets that still exist in some Pennsylvania neighborhoods are a treasure worth preserving, according to the City of Pittsburgh. Dellrose Street, an aging, 900 ft. long, brick road, was in need of repair, but the city of Pittsburgh wanted to limit traditional stormwater infrastructure, such as pipes and catch basins.

Pennsylvania brick road

Dellrose Street permeable paver system

To save the aesthetics of the neighborhood, they hired ms consultants, inc. to design a permeable paver solution for controlling stormwater runoff volumes and peak runoff rates that would traditionally be routed off-site via storm sewers.  Jason Borne, a stormwater engineer for ms consultants who worked on the project says, “What we try to do is understand the in situ infiltration potential of the subsoils to determine the most efficient natural processes for attenuating flows; either through infiltrating excess water volume back into the soil or through slow-release off-site.”  He used the SATURO Infiltrometer to get an idea of how urban fill material would infiltrate water.

Green Infrastructure Aids Natural Infiltration

As Borne and his team investigated what they could do to slow down the runoff, they decided permeable pavers would be a viable solution.  He says, “There’s not much you can do once you put in a hardened surface like a pavement.  Traditional pavement surfaces accelerate the runoff which requires catch basins and large diameter pipes to carry the runoff off-site. We were interested in investigating what some of the urban subsoils or urban fill would allow us to do from an infiltration perspective.  As we started looking at some of these subsoils, we decided a permeable paver system would be ideal for this particular street.”

Researchers install a subsurface flow barrier

Subsurface flow barrier installation

Infiltrometers Determine Natural Infiltration Potential

Once the water flowed into the aggregate, the team began to figure out ways to slow it down and promote infiltration.  Borne says, “Basically we came up with a tiered subsurface flow barrier system.  We had about 60 concrete flow barriers across the subgrade within the aggregate base of the road. We needed so many because the longitudinal slope of the road was fairly significant. Behind each of these barriers we stored a portion of the stormwater that would typically run off the site.  The ideal was to remove the stored water through infiltration—to get it down to the subgrade and away, so we used infiltrometers to help us establish where we could maximize infiltration and where we might need to rely on other management methods.”

A Need for Faster Test Times Inspires a Comparison

Borne says that USDA soil surveys are too generalized for green infrastructure applications in urban areas and only give crude approximations of the soil hydraulic conductivity. Understanding the best way to promote natural infiltration requires a very specific infiltration rate or hydraulic conductivity for the location of interest.  He says, “The goal is to excavate down to the desired elevation before construction and find out, through some kind of device what the infiltration potential of the subsoil is.  Typically we use a double ring infiltrometer, but it’s a very manual device. We’re constantly refilling water, and it requires us to be on-site and attentive to what’s happening.  We can’t really multitask, especially in areas of decently infiltrating soils where the device might run out of water in 30 minutes or less. So, in the interest of saving water and time, we used the automated SATURO infiltrometer and the manual double ring infiltrometer concurrently for comparison purposes.”

Next week:  Find out how the two infiltrometers compared.

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

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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.

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

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How to Measure Water Potential

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

Image of a mountain with a little snow on the top

Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range.

How to measure water potential

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

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

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

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

Vapor Pressure Methods:

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

Image of a researcher using a WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer to test a sample

WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer

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

Advantages

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

Limitations

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

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

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

Secondary Methods

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

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

Image of an example of a moisture release curve in the form of a graph

Example of a moisture release curve.

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

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

Matric Potential Sensors

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

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

Accuracy Depends on Custom Calibration

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

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

Limited Range

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

Image of a METER Tensiometer in the ground

METER Tensiometer

Tensiometers and Traditional Methods

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

Choose the right water potential sensor

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

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 water potential”—>

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

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

Secchia river 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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Soil Moisture: An Important Parameter in Weather Monitoring

CoCoRaHS and Weather Monitoring

Each time a rain, hail, or snow storm crosses over your area, volunteers are taking precipitation measurements that are then used to analyze situations ranging from water resource availability to severe storm warnings.  

Water droplets falling onto a larger body of water

CoCoRaHS precipitation data is used by many high profile organizations.

CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network) is a non-profit community-based network of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation (rain, hail, and snow).  Their data is used by the National Weather Service, meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities, USDA, engineers, farmers, and more.  The organization will soon add another layer to their weather-monitoring efforts:  soil moisture measurement.

Image of flooding high enough to reach the branches of a tree

In 1997, a localized flooding event in Fort Collins, Colorado was not well-warned due to lack of high-density precipitation observation.

Why Soil Moisture?

CoCoRaHS originated as the brain child of Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist of Colorado,  in 1997 in response to a localized flooding event in Fort Collins, CO that was not well-warned due to lack of high-density precipitation observations.  Ten years ago the Colorado Climate Center began a partnership with the National Integrated Drought Information System to establish the first regional drought early warning system. This particular system would serve the Upper Colorado River Basin and eastern Colorado.

From the beginning, Nolan was thinking about soil moisture.  He says, “When we first started this project, we identified one weakness of the current climate monitoring systems as the inability to quantitatively assess soil moisture.  Soil moisture is critical as it affects both short-term weather forecasts and long-term seasonal forecasts, which are important for drought early warning and avoiding the agricultural consequences of too much or too little soil moisture.”It wasn’t until years later in the drought of 2012, which developed rapidly in the mid and late spring across the intermountain west and central plains that Nolan began planning to use CoCoRaHS as a vehicle for improving the soil moisture aspect of drought early warning.

Dusty plants on the side of a dirt road

The organization intends to measure soil moisture using the gravimetric method.

How Will Volunteers Measure Soil Moisture?

Historically, CoCoRaHS has had success using low-cost measurement tools, stressing training and education, and using an interactive website to provide the highest quality data, and soil moisture will be no different.  The organization intends to measure soil moisture using the gravimetric method, where the user will take samples using a soil ring, dry samples in their own oven, and measure sample weight with an electronic scale. Peter Goble, a research assistant at Colorado State, has developed the measurement protocols that volunteers will follow.  He says, “We have installed several different types of soil sensors and tried gravimetric techniques in a field next to the center, and our experience has helped us set up a protocol that gets observers as educated as they can be by the time they take their measurements. The coring device we use is something that came about through trial and error. We were trying to reconcile the fact that we really wanted deeper root zone measurements in order to satisfy drought early-warning-system users, and the need for an inexpensive set of standardized materials that we could send out to observers in a kit.”  Volunteers will take soil samples at each point in a grid pattern, both at the surface and at the 7-9 inch level near the root zone.

What will Happen to the Data?

Initially, while the program is in its test phase, the data will be put in a spreadsheet and shared. However, once CoCoRaHS has finished sending this protocol around the nation to a group of alpha testers, they’ll set up a website infrastructure enabling volunteers to enter their VWC data directly into the CoCoRaHS website.

Cracked and dried soil with desert plants around and a setting sun

The need for soil moisture measurement in weather monitoring will outweigh the volunteers’ ability to measure, but there is a solution.

Why the Gravimetric Method?

Nolan says the challenge of water content is that soil is highly variable across space.  And if you add issues like sensor performance, improper installation of sensors, problems with soil contact, changes in bulk density, and soil compaction, you end up with inconsistent data.  The gravimetric method will avoid inconsistencies in spatial measurements and ensure higher quality data.

An Overwhelming Task

Nolan says the need for soil moisture measurement in weather monitoring will outweigh the volunteers’ ability to measure, but there is a solution. “People who use soil moisture data in atmospheric applications need high resolution, gridded information in every square kilometer across the country, but it will happen through modeling.  The measurements we take of precipitation and soil moisture will help in the refinement of the weather modules the atmospheric scientists will use as input to their weather prediction models.”

See weather sensor performance data for the ATMOS 41 weather station.

Explore which weather monitoring system is right for you.

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

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

Alkali Bee on a persons finger

Alkali Bee

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

Why Water Relations Matter

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

Alkali bee larvae

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

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

Alkali Bee nest with larvae

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

Specialized Instruments for Each Measurement

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

A researcher with a instrument called a sample chamber psychometer sitting in front of him

A sample chamber psychrometer

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

Water Potential Seems Important to the Bees

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

Image of an Alkali Bee seeking shelter in a rain storm in a little tunnel in the dirt

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

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

Another Interesting Observation  

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

Image of a large green tool used to punch holes in the soil for Alkali Bees to nest in laying on top of the soil

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

How Do Larvae Stay Hydrated?

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

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

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References

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

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

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