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.
Henry Adams, a PhD student at the University of Arizona, is studying the effect of climate change and drought on Piñon Pines in the university’s Biosphere 2 lab (see part 1). This week, find out how the researchers made comparisons at leaf level, transplanted the trees, and future implications for the Piñon Pine.
The Piñon Pine, a conifer with an extensive root system, grows at high elevations in the Southwest. (Image: naturesongs.com)
Sensitivity to Dry Conditions
Another part of the drought study involved a hydrologist who was interested in using weighing lysimeter data to parameterize some models used by hydrologists to model water loss during drought. “The lysimeters are a pain to run, but they’re pretty sensitive,” says Adams. “They can measure with a 0.1 kg precision, so that sounds like a good way to quantify water loss. It turns out that stomatal conductance from the porometer actually appears more sensitive than the weighing lysimeter data. Water loss from the scale hits zero pretty quickly, and we can’t measure any loss after a couple of weeks, but we can still see water loss with our porometer data from the morning and the evening.”
The Piñon Pine’s root system makes it remarkably drought tolerant, but an extended drought in combination with a bark beetle outbreak killed 12,000 hectares of the trees in 2003. (Image: naturesongs.com)
Expanding the Experiment
At the peak of the experiment, Adams had undergraduates and lab techs running up to three porometers at a time all day long, and although he’s still buried in data from the first experiment, he’s looking forward to accumulating even more data. “One limitation of our study is that the trees had pretty small root balls when they arrived. We’ve transplanted some trees [at different elevations at a site] in northern Arizona using a full-sized tree mover to get as big a root to shoot ratio as possible in the transplant. We’ll be using the porometers to try to understand the physiology of how these trees die and to predict their temperature sensitivity in the light of global climate change, using elevation change as a surrogate for temperature. We also have trees at the site that are not transplanted to serve as a control for the transplants.”
Adams acknowledges that not everyone in the Southwest is worried about the Piñon Pine. “We work in a system that doesn’t have a lot of economic value. A lot of the ranchers are happy to see the pines go. They just think there will be a lot more grass for the cattle, and firewood cutters are out there cutting up the dead trees and selling them.” But if temperature alone makes trees more susceptible to drought, the implications go far beyond economics. Adams puts it succinctly, if somewhat mildly: “It’s kind of scary.”
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.
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.
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.
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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In Germany, scientists are measuring the effects of tomorrow’s climate change with a vast network of 144 large lysimeters.
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.
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.”
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.
In Haiti, untreated human waste contaminating urban areas and water sources has led to widespread waterborne illness.
Waterborne disease is the leading cause of death for children under 5. Currently, Haiti is battling the largest cholera outbreak in recent history. Over 1/6 of the population is sickened to date.
Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) has been working to turn human waste into a resource for nutrient management by turning solid waste into compost. (See part 1).
Contaminants making their way into the waterways.
The organization plans on performing experiments with lysimeters, to determine if human waste will contaminate Haitian soil during the composting process.
Even in places where there are toilets, they are often poorly designed or poorly placed. This latrine is located just above a river, where people are getting their bathing and drinking water.
Lysimeters Help Assess Health Hazards
SOIL will use G3 passive capillary lysimeters in an experiment to determine if composting human waste without a barrier between the waste and the soil will result in ecological and/or health hazards. Why? The problem is “jikaka,” or “poo juice.” The compost facility currently redistributes it onto the compost and finishing piles, but they would rather not have to manage it. They believe if they remove the concrete slab and allow composting to occur in contact with soil, the composting process will be easier and faster.
SOIL’s agricultural team conducts studies on the use of compost to improve farming practices and maximize economic benefits of targeted compost application.
The organization will test their idea as they expand their facility. New compost bins and staging areas for finishing have been built absent concrete pads. G3 passive capillary lysimeters have been installed, three beneath the compost bin, and four beneath the first staging area for finishing. They will be used to monitor the amount of moisture (jikaka) that travels through the soil as well as check for anything harmful that travels with it.
SOIL’s human waste compost was found to increase sorghum yields by 400%.
What’s the Futurefor Konpòs Lakay?
SOIL’s agricultural team studies the use of their compost (Konpòs Lakay) in order to optimize farming practices and the economic benefits of targeted compost application. The data they collect will help them expand the market for Konpòs Lakay, which in turn will support the sustainability of SOIL’s sanitation programs.
For more information on SOIL’s waste treatment efforts, visit their website, or watch the video below, a TEDx talk given by SOIL co-founder, Sasha Kramer.
In Haiti, untreated human waste contaminating urban areas and water sources has led to widespread waterborne illnesses such as typhoid, cholera, and chronic diarrhea.
Human wastes are making their way into Haiti’s waterways.
Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) has been working since 2006 to shift human waste as a threat to public health and source of pollution to being a resource for nutrient management by turning solid waste into compost. This effort has been critical to sustainable agriculture and reforestation efforts, as topsoil in Haiti has severely eroded over time, contributing to Haiti’s extreme poverty and malnutrition.
This is a very famous image of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It’s often used to demonstrate how badly off Haiti is relative to their neighbors. What you’re actually seeing is the environmental scars of a very different post-colonial history.
Topsoil erosion in Haiti was estimated to be 36.6 million metric tons annually in 1990, and it is estimated that only one sixth of the land currently cultivated in Haiti is suitable for agriculture. SOIL combats desertification by producing over 100,000 gallons of agricultural-grade compost made from human waste annually. SOIL research has shown that this compost can increase crop yields by up to 400%. The organization has sold over 60,000 gallons of this compost to local farmers and organizations, increasing soil organic matter and nutrients throughout the country.
Today in Haiti, only 25% of people have access to a toilet – meaning people are forced to go to the bathroom outside or in urban areas, in a plastic bag, which often times gets disposed of in a canal or an empty lot.
How Do They Do It?
SOIL distributes specially constructed toilets throughout Haiti that separate urine from solid waste. Odors are reduced by covering the solid waste with organic cover material. The toilet utilizes a five gallon bucket to collect solid waste that can be swapped out when full.
Instead of flushing nutrients away with fresh water, people use a dry carbon material to cover it up so that it doesn’t smell, and it doesn’t attract flies. This material also provides food for the microbes that will ultimately transform the poop.
The five gallon buckets are collected weekly and taken to the composting facility, where they are dumped into large composting bins. It takes about 1500 buckets (3-4 days worth) to fill each bin. Bins are required to reach 122°F and left for 2.5 months in order to kill all pathogens.
Wastes are safely transformed into nutrient-rich compost in a carefully monitored composting treatment process that exceeds the World Heath Organization’s standards for the safe treatment of human waste.
The compost is then removed from the bin and turned by hand. There are three concrete slabs used to manage the finishing process. Compost is turned horizontally and then moved forward to the next slab, allowing multiple batches to be finishing at the same time, each at a different stage. After processing, the compost is sifted, bagged, and sold, reinvigorating the agriculturally-based Haitian economy.
The compost SOIL produces is bagged under the Haitian Creole brand name “Konpòs Lakay” and then sold for agricultural application, improving both the fertility and water retention of soil. With over four billion people worldwide currently lacking access to waste treatment services, finding ways to provide waste treatment services profitability through the private sector has the potential to dramatically improve public health and agricultural outputs globally.
Sintim and his team want to understand what’s leaching through the soil as the mulches degrade. He installed passive capillary lysimeters at a 55 cm depth to collect leachate samples for analysis of BDM particulates. He was surprised when the lysimeter readings revealed higher EC measurements.However, the EC in the PE, paper mulch, and no-mulch treatments were also high, hence that could be due to the leaching of accumulated salts in the soil surface. He says, “We have yet to examine the leachate samples for the presence of particulates.”
If the team finds that some of the BDMs do not biodegrade very well in the field, the alternative could be on-farm composting, which would be more viable than having to deal with polyethylene plastic. Sintim and his research team have set up a composting study where they have been digitizing the images of the mulches degrading. He adds, “We buried the mulches in a mesh bag, and periodically we retrieve the bags to study the mulch. There was some black staining on the mesh bag, which we suspect is a nanoparticle called, “carbon black,” used as reinforcing filler in tires and other rubber products.
The team buried the mulches in compost, and periodically they retrieve the mesh bags to study the mulch.
Sintim says the manufacturers do not disclose the actual constituents of their mulches, so he has arranged to examine the mesh bags with WSU’s scanning electron microscope in order to confirm that the stains were due to the presence of particulates. Sintim confirmed that carbon black was used in their experimental BDM, but they don’t know whether the carbon black was made from petroleum products, as there is non-petroleum-based carbon black. He is going to determine whether these particles leach through soil by examining leachate samples from the lysimeter. He will also perform more tests to make sure that these nanoparticles are not going to have any adverse effects on the agro-ecosystem.
What’s in the Future?
While Sintim and his colleagues have made important discoveries, there is still work to be done. He and his team are going to collect three more years’ worth of data to see if there really is a BDM that delivers on its promises and if leaching particles pose a threat to the groundwater.
Henry Sintim, PhD student at Washington State University, is investigating whether biodegradable mulches are, in fact, what they claim to be.
Application of plastic mulches conserves water, and helps in weed, pest, and disease control.
He and his research team want to understand what leaches into the soil as the mulches degrade and which ones perform as well as polyethylene-made plastic mulches (PEs) at weed, pest, and disease control.
Application of plastic mulches in agriculture is a common practice by specialty crop producers worldwide. It conserves water, and helps in weed, pest, and disease control, subsequently improving crop yield and quality. Because PE is durable and does not degrade in the soil, you cannot leave it in the field, which ultimately leads to the question of disposal. When PE is buried in the field, it becomes contaminated with soil and can’t be recycled but instead requires transport to a landfill, increasing production costs. Another problem arises when landfill facilities are not available. When this is the case, growers stockpile PE on their farm, where the rain can wash the mulch down to streams and water bodies. Henry Sintim and his team are investigating whether or not biodegradable plastic mulches (BDMs) could be a viable alternative.
The team installs a lysimeter beneath the mulches.
Substituting PE with BDM could alleviate the need for disposal. However, Sintim says the potential impact on agricultural soil ecosystems needs to be assessed before adopting biodegradable mulch for field use. For instance, do biodegradable mulches really degrade? Sintim explains, “By BDM, we mean it is plastic mulch, but it has been made from pure or partial biobased materials. Though there are plastic mulches advertised as biodegradable, none have actually been proven to biodegrade, so the team is examining degradation of different commercial BDM types over time. They have also included an experimental BDM, in which the constituents were specified by the team.”
Sintim is monitoring the degradation of BDM by assessing the material properties and measuring the particle size and surface area via photography: digitizing and analyzing them using Image J software.
There are indications that some of the BDMs are performing well.
How Well Do the Mulches Compare?
Sintim also wants to find out how well BDMs maintain microclimate in comparison to PE. Since soil temperature and moisture content are important parameters that govern chemical reaction rates and microbial activity, and are likely to vary among the different BDM treatments, he is monitoring soil moisture dynamics using soil moisture and temperature sensors installed at 10 cm and 20 cm depths. In addition, the team has installed sensors directly underneath the mulches to measure surface temperature and light penetration. Reduction of light penetration is the attribute that helps plastic mulches to control weeds. The team is also assessing soil quality using the USDA Soil Quality Test Kit.
Sintim says so far one of the commercial BDMs and the experimental BDM had the same yield performance as PE. He adds, “We don’t have final results yet, and there are a lot of variables that could come into the picture. But I will say there is an indication that some of the BDMs are performing well.”
Next week: Find out how Sintim will determine what’s leaching into the soil and another alternative for polyethylene plastic mulch.
Due to controversy over the growing number of high capacity wells in the Wisconsin Central Sands, University of Wisconsin PhD student, Mallika Nocco, is researching how agricultural land use, irrigation, and climate change impact the region’s water-energy balance (see part I). This week, read about her challenges installing lysimeters below the root zone, how she used a GPS system that can find the lysimeters within a half-inch of accuracy, and her surprising conclusions.
This relatively small ecological region has gone from 60 high capacity wells in 1960 to over 2,500 today.
Below the Root Zone
Nocco says getting the lysimeters below the root zone was a major challenge. “We tried a couple of things, but we settled on installing all the lysimeters with an 18-inch auger that would drill a hole slightly bigger than the whole lysimeter. We dug an 80 cm trench to the top of the monolith zone. Then, we pounded the drain gauge divergence control tube to 1.4 m to obtain an intact monolith, wherever it was possible to do so. We also stratified soil moisture sensors at 10, 20, 40, and 80 cm. We used heavy equipment to slowly lift out the monolith, dig out the soil below, and place it back in, keeping track of all of the different soil horizons, and backfilled as close to the bulk density as we could.”
Passive capillary lysimeter installation
Finding the Lysimeters with GPS
Typically, scientists bury lysimeters close to the edge of the field so they are easy to locate, but Nocco was concerned that they would prejudice their data due to the donut effect of center pivot irrigation: more irrigation hits the center of the field with less irrigation toward the edges. She comments, ”When I installed the first ten lysimeters, I had not yet come up with a way to find everything. Those instruments are all about 15 meters from the field edge so that I could triangulate measurements and find them during cultivation. But then I met an extension scientist at the university who had access to an RTK GPS system, which can locate instrumentation within a half-inch of accuracy. With his help and training, we were able to install the rest of the lysimeters at more random spots throughout the field.”
Nocco was concerned that they would prejudice their data due to the donut effect of center pivot irrigation.
Nocco says that ET and differences in crop physiology do not explain or account for all of the variability that she saw in groundwater recharge. Her team did a particle size analysis on the soils adjacent to the lysimeters, and she comments, “We thought that the greater the relative sand content in the soils, the more recharge we would have seen, but what we are seeing is the opposite. The particle size analysis reveals a negative linear correlation between potential recharge and sand content. The more silt there is in these lysimeters, the more volume of recharge. What I’m curious about now is if we’re seeing a greater volume of recharge in the siltier spots from flux convergence. I’m trying to obtain the time series data from the pressure transducers to see if maybe the sandier areas had less potential recharge, but perhaps drained faster. I have seen a correlation between antecedent soil moisture content and particle size (with no correlation based on crop type). So it also looks like the siltier soils are holding more water when the rain comes through.”
Eventually, Nocco plans to use field-generated estimates of groundwater recharge and ET to parameterize and validate a dynamic, agroecosystem model, Agro-IBIS, simulating hydrological responses to climate and land use changes over the past 60 years. Nocco will then share the water-energy budgets and water quantity/climate simulations with stakeholders in the Wisconsin Central Sands area.
Due to controversy over the growing number of high capacity wells in the Wisconsin Central Sands, University of Wisconsin PhD student, Mallika Nocco, is researching how agricultural land use, irrigation, and climate change impact the region’s water-energy balance. She and her team have uncovered some surprising results.
A class 1 trout stream has sufficient natural reproduction to sustain populations of wild trout at or near carry capacity.
Water Use Debate
There are class 1 trout streams in the Central Sands region, and some people worry that the increasing number of high capacity wells used for agriculture will reduce the water levels in those streams. “Lake Huron has lost about 11 feet of water since 2000,” says one resident of the Central Sands area, “and water levels are continuing to drop.” In 2008, the small well he used to pump drinking water went dry, and he blames the high capacity wells.” (Aljazeera America) On the other side of the debate, agriculture irrigated by these wells is extremely valuable to the state, and growers have taken quite a bit of time to understand the water cycle and their role in it. You can read about their water management goals and accomplishments here.
Updating Former Research
Irrigated agriculture wasn’t prevalent or profitable in the Wisconsin Central Sands until groundwater irrigation with high capacity wells became feasible in the 1950s. Since then, this relatively small ecological region has gone from 60 high capacity wells in 1960 to over 2,500 today.
Mallika Nocco is studying potential groundwater recharge from irrigated cropping systems that use the wells, hoping to understand if the irrigation water is lost or returned to the groundwater. She says, “Until now, we’ve been relying on models validated by two lysimeters in the 1970s. Champ Tanner (one of the fathers of environmental biophysics) designed the weighing lysimeters, and they were very accurate, but we wanted to do a larger scale study with multiple crops to get a handle on interannual variability and to improve our understanding of recharge in the region so we can do a better job of managing irrigation and groundwater.”
Lysimeter installation into actively managed fields presented challenges that the research team had to overcome.
Nocco used twenty-five drain gauge lysimeters to capture vadose zone flux under potato and maize cropping systems. She monitored soil water (and temperature) flux by stratifying water content sensors from the soil surface to a depth of 1.4 meters. She also estimated evapotranspiration (ET) using a porometer to measure stomatal conductance, in addition to obtaining micrometeorology, leaf area index, and gas exchange measurements.
Nocco and her team had to put their sensors in to avoid cultivation, so they extended the drain gauge PVC that comes up to the soil surface and removed it any time there was major fieldwork, whether it was tillage or planting, so that the area over the lysimeter got the same treatment as the rest of the agricultural fields.
Below the Root Zone
Nocco says getting the lysimeters below the root zone was a challenge. Next week, read about how she solved that challenge, how she used a GPS system to find the lysimeters within a half-inch of accuracy, and about her surprising conclusions.