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Chalk Talk: How Many Soil Moisture Measurements Do I Need?

In this chalk talk video, world-renowned soil physicist, Dr. Gaylon Campbell, discusses how many measurements researchers and growers need to characterize soil moisture at a field or research site. He explores the question: What is the relationship between the measurements that you make and the underlying value of water content in the field?

Presenter

Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell has been a research scientist and engineer at METER for 19 years following nearly 30 years on faculty at Washington State University.  Dr. Campbell’s first experience with environmental measurement came in the lab of Sterling Taylor at Utah State University making water potential measurements to understand plant water status.  Dr. Campbell is one of the world’s foremost authorities on physical measurements in the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum.  His book written with Dr. John Norman on Environmental Biophysics provides a critical foundation for anyone interested in understanding the physics of the natural world.   Dr. Campbell has written three books, over 100 refereed journal articles and book chapters, and has several patents.

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Our scientists have decades of experience helping researchers and growers measure the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum. 

Transcript

We quite often get a question from customers about how many measurements we need to characterize soil moisture at a site. And so that’s what I want to talk about today. A number of years ago, I knew a man who was wanting to provide a business of making soil moisture measurements for the purpose of irrigation scheduling for farmers. And he came to me wondering how many samples he should take. He figured that he wanted a fairly simple way of determining soil moisture. 

TEROS 12 soil moisture sensor

So, he thought he would go into the field and he would collect soil samples from the field, he would take them back to the laboratory, he would dry them and weigh them and dry them and determine water content. And he wondered how many samples would be required to determine the water content to provide this information for a farmer. 

Now, that’s not so different from the kinds of information that are often required either for practical applications like irrigation scheduling, or for research purposes. We can see the broader applications of the question of, “what’s the relationship between the measurements that we take and the underlying value of water content in the field?” 

Soil water content will vary from place to place.

I think you can see that the same thing would apply whether we were taking samples and bringing them back to the laboratory, or if we were putting in soil moisture sensors, and wanting to monitor soil moisture in the field. So, the first thing we need to talk about soil moisture is a random variable, we need some vocabulary for talking about that. Two terms are important: mean and standard deviation. 

If we were to collect many samples of water content from a field, and we were to plot the number of samples versus the water content of the samples, we would obtain a relationship something like this. We would get the most samples around some central value, and that central value is the mean. 

The standard deviation is a measure of the dispersion around the mean. 68% of the values that we take would be within plus or minus one standard deviation of that mean value. 95% would be within plus or minus two standard deviations of the mean value. 

So, let’s say that we walked out here in the field, and we took a sample and made a measurement on it. And let’s say out of that sample, we determined the water content was 27%. Now let’s say that we assume or we know from some means that the standard deviation is 3%. Then, by these ideas, we would know that the mean value – the expected value for the water content – is or at least there would be a 95% probability that the mean value of the water content would be somewhere between 21% and 33%. The mean value plus two times the standard deviation and the mean value minus two times the standard deviation. 

Now we may say, “well that’s not good enough. We need better values than that. So what do we do? We need to take more samples. And so we take a number of samples and average them. And so we can know what the result of averaging several samples is, with a simple relationship. The uncertainty in the average value that we get–the standard deviation of the mean–is the standard deviation, divided by the square root of the number of samples. 

So let’s say that we went out in the field, and we took 100 samples. Then the standard deviation of the mean, would be our standard deviation that we assumed before, divided by the square root of 100. The square root of 100, of course, is 10. And so that would be 0.3%. If we determined a value of 28% for that mean of the 100 samples, then with 95% confidence, we can say that the water content is between 27.4 (2 standard deviations below the mean), and 28.6.

Now we’re getting closer then to our quest of determining the number of samples that we need to take. We start out with that equation that we just had that the standard deviation of the mean is equal to the standard deviation divided by the square root of the number of samples. We can rearrange that to say that the number of samples that we need is equal to the standard deviation divided by the standard deviation of the mean, and that value squared. So, the error that we normally would talk about in the measurement–if we’re again talking about 95% confidence–the error is half of the standard deviation of the mean. 

This number of samples is two times the standard deviation over the air, and that all squared. So, if we work through a little problem with that, how many samples would we need in order to know the water content within 1%? If the standard deviation is 3%, the way we’ve assumed.

So, the standard deviation is 3%. The error value that we want to get to is 1%. We want to take enough samples so that we have 95% confidence that we’re within 1%. And so the number of samples is 2 times 3%, divided by the air, 1%, and that’s all squared. And that comes out to be 36 samples. Well, when we see that number, typically we get pretty discouraged. That’s more samples than we want to take. More samples probably than we can afford to take. 

To see how that relates to reality, we did a little experiment. Here we have a soccer field out behind the METER (formerly Decagon) building. We went out and took one of our sensors, the GS3, and hooked it up to our little handheld device. And we set up three transects 20 meters long, parallel with each other and spaced a meter apart. We went along and took samples every meter along these transects. And I have a little video here that shows how that sampling went. The result of that sampling is shown in this next slide. 

This slide shows the result of that set of measurements that we made. And you can see it looks about like you would expect it to. We’ve got some variation, we show a mean value and some variation around it. The transects, again, showed variability but seemed to be showing about the same result for each transect. We had 60 samples there. 

The average water content that we computed was 38.6%. The standard deviation was not 3%, but 5%. So, the situation is even worse than we imagined with these calculations that we just did here. With a standard deviation of 5%, if we want to know the water content within 1%, we would need 100 samples to do that. And so even with our 60 samples, here, our standard deviation of the mean is 0.65%. And so our field water content is somewhere between 37.3 and 39.9. 

Well, as I say that usually is discouraging when we get to that point and see how many samples are needed to make a set of measurements, but the thing is that quite often, the thing that we need to know is not an accurate value for the average water content. Quite often, what we want to know is how much the water content is changing. And that we can know in other ways, accurately enough, so that we don’t need that many samples. 

That person that I started out talking about who was wanting to schedule irrigation would need to know water content with an accuracy of 1%. Well, at least with a precision of 1% or better. But that could be achieved much more readily by installing a sensor in situ, where you’re not dealing with the spatial variability in the soil and monitoring that. 

Here I’ve shown some data that we took in the field with one of our 5TE sensors hooked up to a data logger. The water content is sampled every minute, it’s averaged over hour intervals, and the plot that you see here is a plot of the water content measured each hour. Then, you can see a period of time where the soil is drying, because the plants are using water. You can see an increase in water content that results from adding water through irrigation or rain. And then again, the water content decreasing as the water is used. And you see very little variation in those data. 

Now if this guy that wanted to provide the irrigation scheduling service, had wanted to do this same thing by sampling, the next slide shows the result that he would have gotten if he had gone out every hour and taken one soil sample and plotted the result. 

This is what he would have gotten; the blue lines that you see. And you can see that it’s about what you would expect: that the highest values are about 10% higher than the mean value, the lowest values are about 10% lower, and the standard deviation we said is about 5. So, that’s about what we would expect. But from these kinds of data, there’s no possibility that you could ever tell when you should irrigate. 

In the next slide, I show the result that you would have gotten if you went out and took 10 samples every hour. And here you can see the pattern to some extent of when the drying and wetting occur, but there’s still an awful lot of variation. 

The next slide shows the result of taking 100 samples every hour, a ridiculous thought, but again, there’s still some variation in it. It still doesn’t look anywhere near as good as the in situ sample. When we’re just looking for the changes in water content, the water storage, and water use, in situ measurements make a lot more sense than soil moisture sampling. 

So, let me conclude just by a few points that I hope to have made in this. First of all, the soil water content varies from place to place; that’s inherent in nature. It’s something that we expect anytime we go out to measure soil moisture. We usually need to take an average of moisture at several locations in order to know what the water content of a field is, or an experimental site. We usually can’t afford to take enough measurements to really know what it is to have it within the accuracy that we would like to have it. And so we can go through this exercise that I’ve gone through here, we can determine the number that we need, but usually, our budget won’t allow us to put in that many and so we end up compromising to some extent. 

Water Potential 101: What It Is. Why You Need It. How To Use It.

Soil is no longer a black box 

Advances in sensor technology and software now make it easy to understand what’s happening in your soil, but don’t get stuck thinking that only measuring soil water content will tell you what you need to know.

Water content is only one side of a critical two-sided coin. To understand when to water, plant-water stress, or how to characterize drought, you also need to measure water potential. 

Better data. Better answers.

Soil water potential is a crucial measurement for optimizing yield and stewarding the environment because it’s a direct indicator of the availability of water for biological processes. If you’re not measuring it, you’re likely getting the wrong answer to your soil moisture questions. Water potential can also help you predict if soil water will move, and where it’s going to go. Join METER soil physicist, Dr. Doug Cobos, as he teaches the basics of this critical measurement. Learn:

  • What is water potential?
  • Why water potential isn’t as confusing as it’s made out to be
  • Common misconceptions about soil water content and water potential
  • Why water potential is important to you

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Presenter

Dr. Cobos is a Research Scientist and the Director of Research and Development at METER.  He also holds an adjunct appointment in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Washington State University where he co-teaches Environmental Biophysics.  Doug’s Masters Degree from Texas A&M and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota focused on field-scale fluxes of CO2 and mercury, respectively.  Doug was hired at METER to be the Lead Engineer in charge of designing the Thermal and Electrical Conductivity Probe (TECP) that flew to Mars aboard NASA’s 2008 Phoenix Scout Lander.  His current research is centered on instrumentation development for soil and plant sciences.

Episode 9: Pioneers of Environmental Measurement

What was the life of a scientist like before modern measurement techniques? In our latest podcast, Campbell Scientific’s Ed Swiatek and METER’s Dr. Gaylon Campbell discuss their association with three pioneers of environmental measurement.

Learn what it was like to practice science on the cutting edge. Discover the creative lengths they went to and what crazy things they cobbled together to get the measurements they needed.

Listen now—>

Hydraulic Conductivity: How Many Measurements Do You Need?

Two researchers show easier methods conform to standards

If you’re measuring saturated hydraulic conductivity with a double ring infiltrometer, you’re lucky if you can get two tests done in a day. For most inspectors, researchers, and geotechs—that’s just not feasible. Historically, double ring methods were the standard, however the industry is now more accepting of faster single ring methods with the caveat that enough locations are tested. But how many locations are enough?

Triple the tests you run in a day

Drs. Andrea Welker and Kristin Sample-Lord, researchers at Villanova University, are changing the way infiltration measurements are captured while keeping the standards of measurement high. They ran many infiltration tests with three types of infiltrometers with a variety of sizes and soil types. In this 30-minute webinar, they’ll discuss what they found to be the acceptable statistical mean for a single rain garden. Plus, they’ll reveal the pros and cons of each infiltrometer type and which ones were the most practical to use. Learn:

  • What types of sites were tested
  • How the spot measurements compared with infiltration rates over the whole rain garden
  • Pros and cons of each infiltrometer and how they compared for practicality and ease of use
  • What is an acceptable number of measurements for an accurate assessment

Register now—>

Presenters

Dr. Andrea Welker, PE, F.ASCE, ENV SP, is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Villanova University. She joined Villanova after obtaining her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the geotechnical aspects of stormwater control measures (SCMs) and the effectiveness of SCMs at the site and watershed scale.

Dr. Kristin Sample-Lord, P.E., is an Assistant Professor of geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Villanova University. She received her PhD and MS from Colorado State University. Her research includes measurement of flow and transport in soils, with specific focus on green infrastructure and hydraulic containment barriers.

Related article: How to measure soil hydraulic conductivity
Related article: Which grain size analysis method is right for you?

How to interpret soil moisture data

Surprises that leave you stumped

Soil moisture data analysis is often straightforward, but it can leave you scratching your head with more questions than answers. There’s no substitute for a little experience when looking at surprising soil moisture behavior. 

Image of orange, yellow, and white flowers in a green house
Join Dr. Colin Campbell April 21st, 9am PDT as he looks at problematic and surprising soil moisture data.

Understand what’s happening at your site

METER soil scientist, Dr. Colin Campbell has spent nearly 20 years looking at problematic and surprising soil moisture data. In this 30-minute webinar, he discusses what to expect in different soil, environmental, and site situations and how to interpret that data effectively. Learn about:

  • Telltale sensor behavior in different soil types (coarse vs. fine, clay vs. sand)
  • Possible causes of smaller than expected changes in water content 
  • Factors that may cause unexpected jumps and drops in the data
  • What happens to dielectric sensors when soil freezes and other odd phenomena
  • Surprising situations and how to interpret them
  • Undiagnosed problems that affect plant-available water or water movement
  • Why sensors in the same field or same profile don’t agree
  • Problems you might see in surface installations

Watch it now

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Download the “Complete guide to irrigation management”—>

Data deep dive: When to doubt your measurements

Dr. Colin Campbell discusses why it’s important to “logic-check” your data when the measurements don’t make sense.

Image of the Wasatch Plateau

Wasatch Plateau

In the video below, he looks at weather data collected on the Wasatch Plateau at 10,000 feet (3000 meters) in the middle of the state of Utah.

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Video transcript

My name is Colin Campbell, I’m a research scientist here at METER group. Today we’re going to spend time doing a data deep dive. We’ll be looking at some data coming from my research site on the Wasatch Plateau at 10,000 feet (3000 meters) in the middle of the state of Utah. 

Right now, I’m interested in looking at the weather up on the plateau. And as you see from these graphs, I’m looking at the wind speeds out in the middle of three different meadows that are a part of our experiment. At 10,000 feet right now, things are not that great. This is a picture I collected today. If you look very closely, there’s an ATMOS 41 all-in-one weather station. It includes a rain gauge. And down here is our ZENTRA ZL6 logger. It’s obviously been snowing and blowing pretty hard because we’ve got rime ice on this post going out several centimeters, probably 30 to 40 cm. This is a stick that tells us how deep the snow is up on top. 

One of the things we run into when we analyze data is the credibility of the data and one day someone was really excited as they talked to me and said, “At my research site, the wind speed is over 30 meters per second.” Now, 30 meters per second is an extremely strong wind speed. If it were really blowing that hard there would be issues. For those of you who like English units, that’s over 60 miles an hour. So when you look at this data, you might get confused and think: Wow, the wind speed is really high up there. And from this picture, you also see the wind speed is very high. 

But the instrument that’s making those measurements is the ATMOS 41. It’s a three-season weather station, so you can’t use it in snow. It’s essentially producing an error here at 30 meters per second. So I’ll have to chop out data like this anemometer data at the summit where the weather station is often encrusted with snow and ice. This is because when snow builds up on the sonic anemometer reflection device, sometimes it simply estimates the wrong wind speed. And that’s what you’re seeing here. 

This is why it’s nice to have ZENTRA cloud. It consistently helps me see if there’s a problem with one of my sensors. In this case, it’s an issue with my wind speed sensors. One of the other things I love about ZENTRA Cloud is an update about what’s going on at my site. Clearly, battery use is important because if the batteries run low, I may need to make a site visit to replace them. However, one of the coolest things about the ZL6 data logger is that if the batteries run out, it’s not a problem because even though it stops sending data over the cellular network, it will keep saving data with the batteries it has left. It can keep going for several months. 

I have a mix of data loggers up here, some old EM60G data loggers which have a different voltage range than these four ZL6 data loggers. Three of these ZL6s are located in tree islands. In all of the tree islands, we’ve collected enough snow so the systems are buried and we’re not getting much solar charging. The one at the summit collects the most snow, and since late December, there’s been a slow decline in battery use. It’s down. This is the actual voltage on the batteries. The battery percentage is around 75%. The data loggers in the two other islands are also losing battery but not as much. The snow is just about to the solar charger. There’s some charging during the day and then a decrease at night. 

So I have the data right at my fingertips to figure out if I need to make a site visit. Are these data important enough to make sure the data loggers call in every day? If so, then I can decide whether to send someone in to change batteries or dig the weather stations out of the snow. 

I also have the option to set up target ranges on this graph to alert me whether the battery voltage is below an acceptable level. If I turn these on, it will send me an email if there’s a problem. So these are a couple of things I love about ZENTRA cloud that help me experiment better. I thought I’d share them with you today. If you have questions you want to get in contact me with me, my email is [email protected]. Happy ZENTRA clouding.

Download the researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture—>

Download the researcher’s complete guide to water potential—>

Founders of Environmental Biophysics: Walter Gardner

Visualizing water flow in soil

This week, in our “Founders” series, we highlight a soil physicist.

Image of soil being held in a researchers hand

Water movement in soil defies intuition

When Dr. Walter Gardner passed away in June (2015), many viewed the film Water Movement in Soils as one of the main accomplishments of a remarkable career. Dr. Gardner and Jack Hsieh made the film in 1959 at Washington State University. The technology they used was impressive—it was years before advanced electronics would make time lapse movies routine—but Dr. Gaylon Campbell finds the ideas behind the experiments even more remarkable.

“Once you’ve seen the film, you can go back to the unsaturated flow theory and see how it would work,” Campbell says, “but the ideas aren’t really obvious. I wish I knew how he thought of doing that.”

At one point in the film, Gardner himself says that the phenomena he illustrates in the film can be seen in nature “if one observes carefully.” It’s possible that some of these careful observations were made in the fields around Washington State University, where farmers often turned the surface layer of soil over using a moldboard plow. This created a layer of surface soil with a layer of straw underneath it—exactly the conditions Gardner describes in the film as leading to erosion, reduced water in the root zone, and damage to the soil in the plow zone.

Though agriculture was the obvious target of the film, for a while it was also a big hit with the US Golf Association. Golf greens are mown short and get a lot of abuse. They need to be watered and fertilized heavily, but how do you keep enough water on the plants between irrigations without leaching nutrients out of the root zone? Water Movement in Soils provides a perfect answer. Gardner consulted for the USGA and used his film to train people who designed and constructed the greens.

Water movement in soil defies intuition

Our intuitions about how water moves in soil are often wrong. More than fifty years after it was made, this classic film still has the power to help people understand what’s really going on.

Watch the video

 

Learn more

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to water potential

Best of 2019: Environmental Biophysics

In case you missed them, here are our most popular educational webinars of 2019. Watch any or all of them at your convenience.

Lab vs. In Situ Water Characteristic Curves

Image of a researcher running hand across wheat

Researcher Running A Hand Across Wheat

Lab-produced soil water retention curves can be paired with information from in situ moisture release curves for deeper insight into real-world variability.

Watch it here—>

Hydrology 101: The Science Behind the SATURO Infiltrometer

Image of a fallen tree being supported off the ground by many other trees

A Forest With Fallen Trees

Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell teaches the basics of hydraulic conductivity and the science behind the SATURO automated dual head infiltrometer.

Watch it here—>

Publish More. Work Less. Introducing ZENTRA Cloud

Image of a researcher collecting information from a ZL6 data logger

Researcher is Collecting Data from the ZL6 Data Logger

METER research scientist Dr. Colin Campbell discusses how ZENTRA Cloud data management software simplifies the research process and why researchers can’t afford to live without it.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 101: Need-to-Know Basics

Soil moisture is more than just knowing the amount of water in soil. Learn basic principles you need to know before deciding how to measure it.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 201: Moisture Release Curves—Revealed

Image of rolling hills of farm land

Rolling Hills of Farm Land

A soil moisture release curve is a powerful tool used to predict plant water uptake, deep drainage, runoff, and more.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 301: Hydraulic Conductivity—Why You Need It. How to Measure it.

Image of a researcher measuring with the HYPROP balance

Researcher measuring with the HYPROP balance

If you want to predict how water will move within your soil system, you need to understand hydraulic conductivity because it governs water flow.

Watch it here—>

Soil Moisture 102: Water Content Methods—Demystified

Image of a researcher holding a TEROS 12 in front of a field

Modern Sensing is more than just a Sensor

Dr. Colin Campbell compares measurement theory, the pros and cons of each method, and why modern sensing is about more than just the sensor.

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Soil Moisture 202: Choosing the Right Water Potential Sensor

Image of a dirt plowed field being used for electrical conductivity

Electrical Conductivity

METER research scientist Leo Rivera discusses how to choose the right field water potential sensor for your application.

Watch it here—>

Water Management: Plant-Water Relations and Atmospheric Demand

Dr. Gaylon Campbell shares his newest insights and explores options for water management beyond soil moisture. Learn the why and how of scheduling irrigation using plant or atmospheric measurements. Understand canopy temperature and its role in detecting water stress in crops. Plus, discover when plant water information is necessary and which measurement(s) to use.

Watch it here—>

How to Improve Irrigation Scheduling Using Soil Moisture

Image of a crop field

Capacitance

Dr. Gaylon Campbell covers the different methods irrigators can use to schedule irrigation and the pros and cons of each.

Watch it here—>

Next up:

Soil Moisture 302: Hydraulic Conductivity—Which Instrument is Right for You?

Image of plants growing out of the sand

Leo Rivera, research scientist at METER teaches which situations require saturated or unsaturated hydraulic conductivity and the pros and cons of common methods.

Watch it here—>

Image of grapes growing off of a tree

Predictable Yields using Remote and Field Monitoring

New data sources offer tools for growers to optimize production in the field. But the task of implementing them is often difficult. Learn how data from soil and space can work together to make the job of irrigation scheduling easier.

Watch it here—>

Learn more

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to water potential

Chalk Talk: Why is Humidity Relative?

Dr. Colin Campbell, a senior research scientist at METER Group, as well as adjunct faculty at Washington State University teaches about relative humidity.

Image of a forest with clouds and fog everywhere
Comparing RH at different research sites can be a challenge

Watch the video to find out why we use the term relative humidity and why comparing RH at different research sites can be a challenge.

 

Video transcript

Why is humidity relative?

Hi, I’m Dr. Colin Campbell. I’m a senior research scientist here at METER Group, as well as adjunct faculty up at Washington State University. And I teach a class in environmental biophysics. And today, we’re going to be talking about relative humidity. Have you ever looked at a weather report and wondered, what do they mean by the term relative? Why aren’t we talking about absolute things? And so today I’m going to talk about what is relative humidity? Well, relative humidity we’re going to define here as just hr. And hr is equal to the partial pressure of water vapor in air divided by the saturation vapor pressure or the maximum possible partial pressure of water in air as a function of temperature. So this is relative because anytime we have a partial pressure of water vapor, we’re always dividing it by the maximum possible water vapor that could be in the air at any point.

Comparing RH at different sites is a challenge

So, why would relative humidity be such a challenge for us as scientists to use in comparing different sites? I wanted to talk about that so we can focus in here on this saturation vapor pressure. Over here we have Tetens equation. This says that the saturation vapor pressure, which is a function of air temperature is equal to 0.611 kPa times the exponential of a constant “b” times the air temperature divided by another constant “c” plus the air temperature. So at any point, depending on the air temperature, we can calculate the saturation vapor pressure, and then we can put it back into this equation and get our relative humidity. There are two situations we might think about for calculating our saturation vapor pressure. The most typical is this one: where that constant “b” is 17.502 degrees C. And the constant “c” is 240.97 degrees C (the units on this are degrees C, so these will cancel). If we’re over ice, those constants will be different: “b” would be 21.87 degrees C and “c” would be 265.5 degrees C. 

So as I mentioned, relative humidity is a challenging variable to use in research because while vapor pressure (ea) (the vapor pressure of the air) is somewhat conservative across a day, the saturation vapor pressure (with respect to air temperature), this changes slowly with temperature across the day. So if we graphed temperature on one axis and the relative humidity on the other axis, we might during a typical day have a temperature range that looks somewhat like this. And even if the actual vapor pressure “ea” wasn’t changing, we’d see a relative humidity trend that looked like this: only changing because of air temperature. And because of that, if we wondered how do I compare the water in the air at one research site, for example, with the water in the air at another research site? We might be inclined to average them. But because of this trend, the average of the relative humidity at any site tends to be around 0.60 to 0.65 and therefore will be totally irrelevant in the literature. 

So we need to speak in absolutes, and in my next lecture, I’m going to go into what we can do to calculate that absolute relative humidity. If you want to know more about making measurements in the atmosphere, go to metergroup.com, look at our atmospheric instrumentation, and you can learn more from there.

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”

Download “The researcher’s complete guide to water potential

Chalk Talk: Intensive vs. Extensive Variables

Learn the difference between intensive and extensive variables and how they relate to soil water potential vs. soil water content in our new Chalk Talk whiteboard series. In this video series, Dr. Colin S. Campbell teaches basic principles of environmental biophysics and how they relate to measuring different parameters of the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum.

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Learn more

To learn more about measuring water potential vs. water content read: Why soil moisture sensors can’t tell you everything.

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

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

Video transcript

Hello, my name is Colin Campbell. I’m a senior research scientist here at METER group. And I teach a class on environmental biophysics. Today I wanted to talk about something we teach in the class: the difference between extensive and intensive variables. I’d like to do this with the goal of relating it to the difference between volumetric water content and water potential. 

Here, I have a picture of a ship moving through the ice and some metal that’s been heated in a furnace. I think we would agree the ship has the highest amount of heat in it compared to this very small piece of metal. And if we placed that piece of metal onto the outside of the ship, despite the fact that there is more heat in the ship, we know the heat would not move from the high amount of heat (ship) to the low amount of heat (metal). It would actually move from the highest temperature to the lowest temperature. Why is that?

The reason is that heat moves because of temperature and not because of heat content or the amount of heat in something. Heat content defines an amount or an extent. And we generally term something that defines an extent or an amount as an extensive variable.An extensive variable depends broadly on the size of something or how much of something there is. 

This differs for temperature. Temperature doesn’t depend on size. The temperature could be the same in a very small room or a very large room, but the amount of heat or heat content in those rooms would be quite different. When we describe temperature, we talk about intensity, which is why we call these types of variables intensive variables. This is because they don’t depend on size or amount. 

Let’s talk about another example. Here’s your heating bill. Maybe it’s natural gas. What you’re paying for is the amount of heat you put into the house. But the question is, are you comfortable in the house? And from this bill, we can’t tell. Maybe you put in 200 heat units, whatever those might be. We can’t tell if that’s comfortable because we don’t know the size of the house or the type of insulation. All those things would influence whether you were comfortable. 

Alternatively, if the temperature is 71 F that’s quite comfortable. That’s equivalent to about 22 degrees Celsius. So the intensive variable, temperature, is different than the extensive variable, heat content, that tells us how much heat we put in. And that’s important because at the end of the day, that leads to cost. 

On this side, we don’t know how much we paid to keep it at 22 C because heat content doesn’t tell us anything about that. But the intensive variable temperature does tell us something about comfort. So both of these variables are critical to really understanding something about our comfort in the house. 

Now let’s talk about the natural environment. Specifically, we’re going to talk about soils. We’ll start with the extensive variable. When we talk about water in soil, the extensive variable is, of course, water content. Water content defines the amount of water. Why would we care about water content? Well, for irrigation or a water balance.

The intensive variable is called water potential. What does water potential tell us? It tells us if soil water is available and also predicts water movement. If this soil had a water content of 25% VWC and another soil was at 20% VWC, would the water move from the higher water content to the lower water content? Well, that would be like our example of the ship and the heated piece of metal. We don’t know if it would move. It may move. And if the soil on either side was exactly the same, we might presume that it would move from the higher water content to the lower water content, but we actually don’t know. Because the water content is an extensive variable, it only tells us how much there is. It won’t tell us if it will move. 

Now, if we knew that this soil water potential was -20 kPa and this soil water potential over here was -15 kPa, we would know something about where the water would move, and it would do something different than we might think. It would move from the higher water potential to the lower water potential against the gradient in water content, which is pretty interesting but nonetheless true. Water always moves from the highest water potential to the lowest water potential.

This helps us understand these variables in terms of plant comfort. We talked about the temperature being related to human comfort. We know at what temperatures we are most comfortable. With plants, we know exactly the same thing, and we always turn to the intensive variable, water potential, to define plant comfort.

For example, if we have an absolute scale like water potential for a particular plant, let’s say -15 kPa is the upper level for plant comfort, and -100 kPa is the lower level of comfort, we could keep our water potential in this range. And the plant would be happy all the time. Just like if we kept our temperature between 21 and 23 Celsius, that would be comfortable for humans. But of course, we humans are different. Some people think that temperature is warm, and some think it’s cold. And it’s the same for plants. So this isn’t a hard and fast rule. But we can’t say the same thing with water content. There’s no scale where we can say at 15% water content up to 25% water content you’ll have a happy plant That’s not true.If we know something about the soil, we can infer it. But soil is unique. And we’d have to derive this relationship between the water content and the water potential to know that. 

So why would we ever think about using water content when we measure water in the soil? One reason is it’s the most familiar to people. And it’s the simplest to understand. It’s easy to understand an amount. But more importantly, when we talk about things like how much we’re going to irrigate, we might need to put on 10 millimeters of water to make the plants happy. And we’d need to measure that. Also if we want to know the fate of the water in the system, how much precipitation and irrigation we put on versus how much is moving down through the soil into the groundwater, that also relates to an amount.  

But when we want to understand more about plant happiness or how water moves, it’s going to be this intensive variable, water potential that makes the biggest difference. And so with that, I’ll close. I’d love for you to go check out our website www.metergroup.com to learn a little bit more about these measurements in our knowledge base. And you’re also welcome to email me about this at colin.campbell@meter group.com.

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