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Measuring Frozen Water Potential: How and Why?

In China recently, a fellow scientist asked Dr. Colin Campbell if matric potential sensors work in frozen soils.  His answer? Sort of. In this blog, he explains what he meant by his enigmatic reply: When water freezes in the soil, most matric potential sensors won’t work accurately because frozen water essentially disappears to the measurement. For example, in a dielectric measurement circuit, most of the water that was polarized in the electromagnetic field solidifies in the ice matrix. Thus, because dielectric measurements determine the charge that is stored when water is polarized, ice is not measured. But, many matric potential sensors contain a component that will measure frozen water potential: the temperature sensor.

Frozen ground with horseshoe prints

Horseshoe prints in frozen soil.

How Does Temperature Measure Water Potential?  

The temperature of a frozen matrix like soil has a fundamental thermodynamic relationship to the energy state of that water. For every one degree C below freezing, the water potential decreases by 1.2 MPa. For example, if the soil drops down to -4 C, the soil water potential will be -4.8 MPa. However, one thing many people don’t understand is that there is still liquid water in frozen soils.

Where is the Liquid Water in a Frozen Soil?

Some liquid water will always be associated with soil surfaces because water, as a polar molecule, is attracted by opposite surface charges. Ice is a collection of water molecules that have slowed enough that they are arranged in a crystal-like structure. When ice arranges in that structure, it will attract and use all those water molecules that are available but will have difficulty stealing away water bound to soil surfaces. That water will remain liquid. As soil temperature drops, water layers closer and closer to soil particle surfaces will slow and join the ice structure.

Why Worry about Frozen Water Potential?

Previously, we’ve discussed the importance of water potential in determining the availability of water for plant growth. But below freezing, plants are either dormant or expired, so why measure frozen water potential?

There are a couple of reasons frozen soil water potential may be interesting to scientists. Liquid water in frozen soil still has the possibility to move. So, knowing soil temperature will allow models to predict water flow.  

Even more interesting is what could be done with a temperature sensor and a measurement of water content using dielectric permittivity. As we mentioned earlier, ice essentially disappears to a dielectric measurement.  Thus, a dielectric sensor water content measurement should provide the amount of liquid water in the soil. Using the temperature sensor to infer water potential (assuming the soil begins wet enough that its pre-frozen state has not reduced WP significantly), we can combine the WP and VWC measurements over a range of temperatures to generate an in situ moisture release curve. This idea was developed into a prototype instrument that appeared to have promise as a new laboratory technique to obtain moisture release curves.

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

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

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