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Will Sample Disturbance Lead to Lower Accuracy?

Sampling soil for laboratory analysis of water potential is done for two basic reasons.  The simplest is to determine the current water potential of the soil.  The other is to determine the moisture release curve of the soil.  Regardless of the reason for measurement, the question of sample disturbance is important to ensure an accurate result.  Dr. Colin Campbell explains why:

researcher hand holding soil

Soil is disturbed when it’s removed from its natural structure.

Water Potential and Pore Size:

In soil samples, the void spaces (pores) in between soil particles can be simplistically thought of as a system of capillary tubes, with a diameter determined by the size of the associated particles and their spatial association.  The smaller the size of those tubes, the more tightly water is going to be held because of the surface association.  

In a clay, water will be held more tightly than in a sand at the same water content because clay contains smaller pores and thus more surface area for the water to bind to. But, even sand can eventually dry to a point where there is only a thin film of water on its surfaces and water will be bound tightly.  In principle, the closer water is to a surface, the tighter it will be bound.

Sample Disturbance

Sample disturbance (disturbing soil pores when you remove a sample from the ground) becomes an issue depending on the water potential of your sample. Typically, the less negative (wetter) the water potential, the larger impact sample disturbance will have on the measurement.  We can do a calculation that shows there are specific pore sizes associated with specific water potentials (see table 1).

Water potential units diagram

If you disturb a sample with low water potential, permanent wilting point (-1.5 MPa) for example, the pores that are still filled with water would be approximately 0.2 um in diameter, far too small to be broken apart by scooping up a sample.  Thus, we could reasonably assume that your WP readings won’t be affected much.  But if you disturb soil with higher water potential, say field capacity (-0.033 MPa), it’s much more likely that water will be disturbed, as it fills pores to approximately 9 um.    


Still, this is only an issue if you are attempting to measure in a high WP range.  If your chilled-mirror hygrometer only measures up to -1000 kPa, sample disturbance will not be an issue because those pores that will have broken will likely be larger than the sub-micrometer that are holding water, which is beyond the accuracy of your instrument.   However, some hygrometers can now measure to an upper limit of -100 kPa, which approaches the point where sample disturbance will make a difference.  


If you are sampling to measure with a tensiometer (measures 0 kPa to -80kPa), it’s extremely important to keep your samples intact because tensiometers cover the emptying range of the largest pores found in soil.  A soil collar (sample ring) pounded into the ground will yield the most intact soil core.  It’s the best method to use if you need make sure soil pores remain undisturbed to yield an accurate water potential measurement.

For a more in-depth examination of the magnitude of the effects of sample disturbance, read this chilled-mirror hygrometer App Note detailing the subject.

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

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

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