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Posts tagged ‘Water content’

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]

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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?

Image of green wheat and a bright blue sky

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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Data Logger Dilemma: To Bury, or Not to Bury—An Update

Recently, we wrote about scientists who were burying their data loggers (read it here).  Radu Carcoana, research specialist and Dr. Aaron Daigh, assistant professor at North Dakota State University, used paint cans to completely seal their data loggers before burying them in the fall of 2015.

Data logger in a paint can with sensor cords, being prepared by researchers to be buried

Paint can setup for buried data logger.

They drilled ports for the sensor cables, sealed them up, and when they needed to collect data, they dug up the cans, retrieved the instruments, and downloaded the data in a minute or less.  

Here Radu gives an update of what happened when he dug up his buried instruments in the spring.

Results of the Paint Can Experiment

In May of this year, we dug up eighteen units (one data logger and four soil moisture sensors per unit) left in the field since November 2015—over six months.

Did moisture get into the paint cans? —We found only three cans with water in them, purely due to installation techniques used for that specific unit. The other fifteen units were bone dry, although total precipitation for the month of April only amounted to 3.63 inches, plus the snow melt.

How was data recording and recovery? —For six months, every 30 minutes the soil moisture sensors took readings, the data logger recorded, and we retrieved all of the data, complete and unaltered.

Image of a METER Data Logger in a can with water in it, which was a result of a faulty burying installation

Only three cans with water in them, due to installation techniques.

What about power consumption? The batteries were good —over 90% did not need replacement. The power budget provided by five AA batteries was more than enough for reading four soil moisture sensors at 30-minute intervals.

What Happens Now?

In the spring of this year, we installed 18 more units in the third farm field, right after planting soya. We now have 36 individual units (~$1,000 value each unit) buried in the ground in the middle of a field planted with corn or soybean, since the beginning of May.

On October 13-14 (after 5 months), we accessed the first twelve units (Farm A). All 30 minutes of data was read, recorded, and downloaded (since May).  The batteries and the other accessories were replaced, and then we sealed and reburied the cans. Only one unit out of twelve had an issue and was replaced: the battery exploded in the can (editor’s note: battery explosion is usually caused by a manufacturing defect and the risk can be lessened by purchasing higher quality batteries, although all types are susceptible to some degree).  Since battery leakage will often corrode everything the acid touches, the data logger had to be sent back for repair and there may be partial data loss. The other 24 units (Farm B and C) will be accessed next week, weather permitting.

METER Data Logger open on top of an experimental burying site

Over 90% of batteries did not need replacement.

Is the Paint Can Method Worth it?

We will continue to monitor and retrieve the data from the buried data loggers (We don’t use data loggers suited for wireless communication, because several factors guided us not to). The paint can system works very well if the installation is done correctly, with great attention to detail, and it costs only $2.00/can. However, there are improvements that could be made in order to have this method become a standard in soil research. For instance, though we are still using paint cans and other common materials, advancements in the design of waterproof containers and sturdiness would be a huge step forward. This is just a well thought out concept – a prototype. It proves that burying electronics for a longer period of time can be done if properly executed.

Note:  METER’s (formerly Decagon) official position is that you should never bury your data logger.  But we couldn’t resist sharing a few stories of scientists who have figured out some innovative methods which may or may not be successful, if tried at other sites.

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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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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.

Mesh Wireless Sensor Networks: Will Their Potential Ever Be Realized? (Part 2)

Soil ecologist Dr. Kathy Szlavecz and her husband, computer scientist, Dr. Alex Szalay, both at Johns Hopkins University, are testing a wireless sensor network (WSN; Mesh Sensor Network), developed by Dr. Szalay, his colleague, computer scientist Dr. Andreas Terzis, and their graduate students (read part 1). Mesh networks generate thousands of measurements monthly from wireless sensors. The husband/wife team says that WSN’s have the potential to revolutionize soil ecology by generating a previously impossible spatial resolution.  This week, read about the results of their experiments.

Worm in the Mud

Overall, the experiments were a scientific success, exposing variations in the soil microclimate not previously observed.

Results and Challenges:

About the performance of the network, Kathy says, “Overall, our experiments were a scientific success, exposing variations in the soil microclimate not previously observed. However, we encountered a number of challenging technical problems, such as the need for low-level programming to get the data from the sensor into a usable database, calibration across space and time, and cross-reference of measurements with external sources.

The ability of mesh networks that generate so much data also presents a data management challenge. Kathy explains, “We didn’t always have the resources or personnel who could organize the data.  We needed a dedicated research assistant who could clean, handle, and organize the data. And the software wasn’t user-friendly enough.  We constantly needed computer science expertise, and that’s not sustainable.”  

The team also faced setbacks stemming from inconsistencies generated by new computer science students beginning work on the project as previous students graduated. This is why the team is wondering if a commercial manufacturer in the industrial sector would be a better option to help finish the development of the mesh network.

Mesh Wireless Sensor Network on rocks in the Atacama desert

This deployment is located in the Atacama desert in Chile. Atacama is one of the highest, driest places on Earth. These sensors are co-located with the Atacama Cosmological Telescope. The goal of this deployment is to understand how the hardware survives in an extreme environment. In addition to the cold, dry climate, the desert is exposed to high UV radiation. These boxes are collecting soil temperature, soil moisture and soil CO2 data. (Image: lifeunderyourfeet.org)

What’s Next?

Kathy and Alex say that mesh sensor network design has room for improvement.  Through their testing, the research team learned that, contrary to the promise of cheap sensor networks, sensor nodes are still expensive. They estimated the cost per mote including the main unit, sensor board, custom sensors, enclosure, and the time required to implement, debug and maintain the code to be around $1,000.  Kathy says, “The equipment cost will eventually be reduced through economies of scale, but there is clearly a need for standardized connectors for connecting external sensors and in general, a need to minimize the amount of custom hardware work necessary to deploy a sensor network.”  The team also sees a need for the development of network design and deployment tools that will instruct scientists where to place gateways and sensor relay points. These tools could replace the current labor-intensive trial and error process of manual topology adjustment that disturbs the deployment area.

Image of deployment locations in fields of the farming systems

This deployment is located in the fields of the farming system project at BARC. Soil temperature and moisture probes are placed at various locations of a corn-soybean-wheat rotation. The goal is to understand and explain soil heterogeneity and to provide background data for trace gas measurements. (Image: Lifeunderyourfeet.org)

Future Requirements:

According to Kathy, wireless sensor networks promise richer data through inexpensive, low-impact collection—an attractive alternative to larger, more expensive data collection systems. However, to be of scientific value, the system design should be driven by the experiment’s requirements rather than technological limitations. She adds that focusing on the needs of ecologists will be the key to developing a wireless network technology that will be truly useful.  “While the computer science community has focused attention on routing algorithms, self-organization, and in-network processing, environmental monitoring applications require quite a different emphasis: reliable delivery of the majority of the data and metadata to the scientists, high-quality measurements, and reliable operation over long deployment cycles. We believe that focusing on this set of problems will lead to interesting new avenues in wireless sensor network research.” And, how to package all the data collected into a usable interface will also need to be addressed in the future.

You can read about Kathy’s experiments in detail at Lifeunderyourfeet.org.

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Mesh Wireless Sensor Networks: Will Their Potential Ever Be Realized?

Although the idea of mesh wireless sensor networks is not new, the realization of their many benefits have gone largely unrealized. The low success rate of most wireless systems makes the accomplishments of this Johns Hopkins group unique.

Image of bright orange, yellow, and red colored trees in autumn

Soil moisture and temperature are major drivers of seasonal dynamics, soil respiration, carbon cycling, biogeochemical functions, and even the types of species living in a certain area.

The ability to measure soil moisture and temperature is vital to ecologists who work in heterogeneous environments because these parameters are major drivers of seasonal dynamics, soil respiration, carbon cycling, biogeochemical functions, and even the types of species living in a certain area.  But ecologists’ scientific understanding of environmental conditions is hindered when soil moisture measurements disturb the research site, or when field measurements are not collected at biologically significant spatial or temporal granularities. Soil ecologist Dr. Kathy Szlavecz and her husband and computer scientist, Dr. Alex Szalay, both at Johns Hopkins University, are working to solve this dilemma by testing a wireless sensor network (WSN; Mesh Sensor Network), developed by Dr. Szalay, his colleague, computer scientist Dr. Andreas Terzis, and their graduate students. These generate thousands of measurements monthly from wireless sensors. The husband/wife team says that WSN’s have the potential to revolutionize soil ecology by generating a previously impossible spatial resolution.

Diagram of a mesh network data system for soil moisture

Architecture of an end-to-end mesh network data collection system. (Image: lifeunderyourfeet.org)

What is a Mesh Network?

In a mesh wireless sensor network, specially designed radio units (nodes) use proprietary or open communications protocols to self-organize and can pass measurement information back to central units called gateways. Different from star networks where each node communicates directly to the gateway, mesh networks pass data to each other, acting as repeater for other nodes when necessary.

Image of 37 sampling locations at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

These are the 37 sampling locations at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, MD. Data from this deployment is aimed at understanding the effect of forest age, leaf litter input, and earthworm abundance on soil carbon cycling. (Image: lifeunderyourfeet.org)

With low power and reliability as their goal, they are deployed in dense networks to automatically measure conditions such as temperature and soil moisture. These node measurements are taken every few hours over several months. The data are then uploaded onto computers, where it can be maintained and searched. Kathy explains “Without an autonomous sensor system, experiments in need of accurate information about a multitude of environmental parameters on various spatial and temporal scales require a superhuman effort. The inexpensive nature of these sensors enable scientists to place a high-resolution grid of sensors in the field, and get frequent readouts.  This provides an extremely rich data set about the correlations and subtle differences among many parameters, allowing ecologists to design experiments that study not only the gross effects of environmental variables, but also the subtle relations between gradients and small temporal changes.”

Sunlight shining through trees in a forest

Without an autonomous sensor system, experiments in need of accurate information about a multitude of environmental parameters on various spatial and temporal scales require a superhuman effort.

Landscape Studies Benefit from Mesh Networks

Kathy and Alex have deployed mesh wireless sensor networks at several study areas around the state of Maryland.  Kathy says, “Once we record the measurements, we can combine that information with observations of soil organisms to better understand how soil organisms and the soil environment interact. This means we can make better predictions about how human activities will affect the soil environment.” In one urban landscape study, Kathy and her team deployed over 100 nodes around a CO2 flux tower looking at the two major landscape covers in an urban environment: grass and forest.  She explains, “We collected data from nodes connected to soil moisture and temperature sensors for over two years at these sites, and the system worked quite well. We collected about 180 million data points, and that’s no small feat.”

Next week: Learn the results of this research group’s mesh network testing and what Kathy thinks the future holds for this technology.

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

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