skip to main content

Title: Remotely Sensed Soil Moisture Can Capture Dynamics Relevant to Plant Water Uptake

A frequently expressed viewpoint across the Earth science community is that global soil moisture estimates from satellite L‐band (1.4 GHz) measurements represent moisture only in a shallow surface layer (0–5 cm) and consequently are of limited value for studying global terrestrial ecosystems because plants use water from deeper rootzones. Using this argumentation, many observation‐based land surface studies avoid satellite‐observed soil moisture. Here, based on peer‐reviewed literature across several fields, we argue that such a viewpoint is overly limiting for two reasons. First, microwave soil emission depth considerations and statistical considerations of vertically correlated soil moisture information together indicate that L‐band measurements carry information about soil moisture extending below the commonly referenced 5 cm in many conditions. However, spatial variations of effective depths of representation remain uncertain. Second, in reviewing isotopic tracer field studies of plant water uptake, we find a prevalence of vegetation that primarily draws moisture from these upper soil layers. This is especially true for grasslands and croplands covering more than a third of global vegetated surfaces. Even some deeper‐rooted species (i.e., shrubs and trees) preferentially or seasonally draw water from the upper soil layers. Therefore, L‐band satellite soil moisture estimates are more relevant to global vegetation water uptake than commonly appreciated (i.e., relevant beyond only shallow soil processes like soil evaporation). Our commentary encourages the application of satellite soil moisture across a broader range of terrestrial hydrosphere and biosphere studies while urging more rigorous estimates of its effective depth of representation.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Publisher / Repository:
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Water Resources Research
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. The Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) has established a network of long-term permanent biogeochemical study plots. These plots will provide long-term data on vegetation, soil and hydrologic processes in the key ecosystem types within the urban ecosystem. The current network of study plots includes eight forest plots, chosen to represent the range of forest conditions in the area, and four grass plots. These plots are complemented by a network of 200 less intensive study plots located across the Baltimore metropolitan area. Plots are currently instrumented with lysimeters (drainage and tension) to sample soil solution chemistry, time domain reflectometry probes to measure soil moisture, dataloggers to measure and record soil temperature and trace gas flux chambers to measure the flux of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane from soil to the atmosphere. Measurements of in situ nitrogen mineralization, nitrification and denitrification were made at approximately monthly intervals from Fall 1998 - Fall 2000. Detailed vegetation characterization (all layers) was done in summer 1998. Data from these plots has been published in Groffman et al. (2006, 2009) and Groffman and Pouyat (2009). In November of 1998 four rural, forested plots were established at Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County northeast of the Gwynns Falls Watershed. Oregon Ridge Park contains Pond Branch, the forested reference watershed for BES. Two of these four plots are located on the top of a slope; the other two are located midway up the slope. In June of 2010 measurements at the mid-slope sites on Pond Branch were discontinued. Monuments and equipment remain at the two plots. These plots were replaced with two lowland riparian plots; Oregon upper riparian and Oregon lower riparian. Each riparian sites has four 5 cm by 1-2.5 meter depth slotted wells laid perpendicular to the stream, four tension lysimeters at 10 cm depth, five time domain reflectometry probes, and four trace gas flux chambers in the two dominant microtopographic features of the riparian zones - high spots (hummocks) and low spots (hollows). Four urban, forested plots were established in November 1998, two at Leakin Park and two adjacent to Hillsdale Park in west Baltimore City in the Gwynns Falls. One of the plots in Hillsdale Park was abandoned in 2004 due to continued vandalism. In May 1999 two grass, lawn plots were established at McDonogh School in Baltimore County west of the city in the Gwynns Falls. One of these plots is an extremely low intensity management area (mowed once or twice a year) and one is in a low intensity management area (frequent mowing, no fertilizer or herbicide use). In 2009, the McDonogh plots were abandoned due to management changes at the school. Two grass lawn plots were established on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in fall 2000. One of these plots is in a medium intensity management area (frequent mowing, moderate applications of fertilizer and herbicides) and one is in a high intensity management area (frequent mowing, high applications of fertilizer and herbicides). Literature Cited Bowden R, Steudler P, Melillo J and Aber J. 1990. Annual nitrous oxide fluxes from temperate forest soils in the northeastern United States. J. Geophys. Res.-Atmos. 95, 13997 14005. Driscoll CT, Fuller RD and Simone DM (1988) Longitudinal variations in trace metal concentrations in a northern forested ecosystem. J. Environ. Qual. 17: 101-107 Goldman, M. B., P. M. Groffman, R. V. Pouyat, M. J. McDonnell, and S. T. A. Pickett. 1995. CH4 uptake and N availability in forest soils along an urban to rural gradient. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 27:281-286. Groffman PM, Holland E, Myrold DD, Robertson GP and Zou X (1999) Denitrification. In: Robertson GP, Bledsoe CS, Coleman DC and Sollins P (Eds) Standard Soil Methods for Long Term Ecological Research. (pp 272-290). Oxford University Press, New York Groffman PM, Pouyat RV, Cadenasso ML, Zipperer WC, Szlavecz K, Yesilonis IC,. Band LE and Brush GS. 2006. Land use context and natural soil controls on plant community composition and soil nitrogen and carbon dynamics in urban and rural forests. Forest Ecology and Management 236:177-192. Groffman, P.M., C.O. Williams, R.V. Pouyat, L.E. Band and I.C. Yesilonis. 2009. Nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide flux in urban forests and grasslands. Journal of Environmental Quality 38:1848-1860. Groffman, P.M. and R.V. Pouyat. 2009. Methane uptake in urban forests and lawns. Environmental Science and Technology 43:5229-5235. DOI: 10.1021/es803720h. Holland EA, Boone R, Greenberg J, Groffman PM and Robertson GP (1999) Measurement of Soil CO2, N2O and CH4 exchange. In: Robertson GP, Bledsoe CS, Coleman DC and Sollins P (Eds) Standard Soil Methods for Long Term Ecological Research. (pp 258-271). Oxford University Press, New York Robertson GP, Wedin D, Groffman PM, Blair JM, Holland EA, Nadelhoffer KJ and. Harris D. 1999. Soil carbon and nitrogen availability: Nitrogen mineralization, nitrification and carbon turnover. In: Standard Soil Methods for Long Term Ecological Research (Robertson GP, Bledsoe CS, Coleman DC and Sollins P (Eds) Standard Soil Methods for Long Term Ecological Research. (pp 258-271). Oxford University Press, New York Savva, Y., K. Szlavecz, R. V. Pouyat, P. M. Groffman, and G. Heisler. 2010. Effects of land use and vegetation cover on soil temperature in an urban ecosystem. Soil Science Society of America Journal 74:469-480." 
    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    In savannas, partitioning of below‐ground resources by depth could facilitate tree–grass coexistence and shape vegetation responses to changing rainfall patterns. However, most studies assessing tree versus grass root‐niche partitioning have focused on one or two sites, limiting generalization about how rainfall and soil conditions influence the degree of rooting overlap across environmental gradients.

    We used two complementary stable isotope techniques to quantify variation (a) in water uptake depths and (b) in fine‐root biomass distributions among dominant trees and grasses at eight semi‐arid savanna sites in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Sites were located on contrasting soil textures (clayey basaltic soils vs. sandy granitic soils) and paired along a gradient of mean annual rainfall.

    Soil texture predicted variation in mean water uptake depths and fine‐root allocation. While grasses maintained roots close to the surface and consistently used shallow water, trees on sandy soils distributed roots more evenly across soil depths and used deeper soil water, resulting in greater divergence between tree and grass rooting on sandy soils. Mean annual rainfall predicted some variation among sites in tree water uptake depth, but had a weaker influence on fine‐root allocation.

    Synthesis. Savanna trees overlapped more with shallow‐rooted grasses on clayey soils and were more distinct in their use of deeper soil layers on sandy soils, consistent with expected differences in infiltration and percolation. These differences, which could allow trees to escape grass competition more effectively on sandy soils, may explain observed differences in tree densities and rates of woody encroachment with soil texture. Differences in the degree of root‐niche separation could also drive heterogeneous responses of savanna vegetation to predicted shifts in the frequency and intensity of rainfall.

    more » « less
  3. Site description. This data package consists of data obtained from sampling surface soil (the 0-7.6 cm depth profile) in black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) dominated forest and black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus) saltmarsh along the Gulf of Mexico coastline in peninsular west-central Florida, USA. This location has a subtropical climate with mean daily temperatures ranging from 15.4 °C in January to 27.8 °C in August, and annual precipitation of 1336 mm. Precipitation falls as rain primarily between June and September. Tides are semi-diurnal, with 0.57 m median amplitudes during the year preceding sampling (U.S. NOAA National Ocean Service, Clearwater Beach, Florida, station 8726724). Sea-level rise is 4.0 ± 0.6 mm per year (1973-2020 trend, mean ± 95 % confidence interval, NOAA NOS Clearwater Beach station). The A. germinans mangrove zone is either adjacent to water or fringed on the seaward side by a narrow band of red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). A near-monoculture of J. roemerianus is often adjacent to and immediately landward of the A. germinans zone. The transition from the mangrove to the J. roemerianus zone is variable in our study area. An abrupt edge between closed-canopy mangrove and J. roemerianus monoculture may extend for up to several hundred meters in some locations, while other stretches of ecotone present a gradual transition where smaller, widely spaced trees are interspersed into the herbaceous marsh. Juncus roemerianus then extends landward to a high marsh patchwork of succulent halophytes (including Salicornia bigellovi, Sesuvium sp., and Batis maritima), scattered dwarf mangrove, and salt pans, followed in turn by upland vegetation that includes Pinus sp. and Serenoa repens. Field design and sample collection. We established three study sites spaced at approximately 5 km intervals along the western coastline of the central Florida peninsula. The sites consisted of the Salt Springs (28.3298°, -82.7274°), Energy Marine Center (28.2903°, -82.7278°), and Green Key (28.2530°, -82.7496°) sites on the Gulf of Mexico coastline in Pasco County, Florida, USA. At each site, we established three plot pairs, each consisting of one saltmarsh plot and one mangrove plot. Plots were 50 m^2 in size. Plots pairs within a site were separated by 230-1070 m, and the mangrove and saltmarsh plots composing a pair were 70-170 m apart. All plot pairs consisted of directly adjacent patches of mangrove forest and J. roemerianus saltmarsh, with the mangrove forests exhibiting a closed canopy and a tree architecture (height 4-6 m, crown width 1.5-3 m). Mangrove plots were located at approximately the midpoint between the seaward edge (water-mangrove interface) and landward edge (mangrove-marsh interface) of the mangrove zone. Saltmarsh plots were located 20-25 m away from any mangrove trees and into the J. roemerianus zone (i.e., landward from the mangrove-marsh interface). Plot pairs were coarsely similar in geomorphic setting, as all were located on the Gulf of Mexico coastline, rather than within major sheltering formations like Tampa Bay, and all plot pairs fit the tide-dominated domain of the Woodroffe classification (Woodroffe, 2002, "Coasts: Form, Process and Evolution", Cambridge University Press), given their conspicuous semi-diurnal tides. There was nevertheless some geomorphic variation, as some plot pairs were directly open to the Gulf of Mexico while others sat behind keys and spits or along small tidal creeks. Our use of a plot-pair approach is intended to control for this geomorphic variation. Plot center elevations (cm above mean sea level, NAVD 88) were estimated by overlaying the plot locations determined with a global positioning system (Garmin GPS 60, Olathe, KS, USA) on a LiDAR-derived bare-earth digital elevation model (Dewberry, Inc., 2019). The digital elevation model had a vertical accuracy of ± 10 cm (95 % CI) and a horizontal accuracy of ± 116 cm (95 % CI). Soil samples were collected via coring at low tide in June 2011. From each plot, we collected a composite soil sample consisting of three discrete 5.1 cm diameter soil cores taken at equidistant points to 7.6 cm depth. Cores were taken by tapping a sleeve into the soil until its top was flush with the soil surface, sliding a hand under the core, and lifting it up. Cores were then capped and transferred on ice to our laboratory at the University of South Florida (Tampa, Florida, USA), where they were combined in plastic zipper bags, and homogenized by hand into plot-level composite samples on the day they were collected. A damp soil subsample was immediately taken from each composite sample to initiate 1 y incubations for determination of active C and N (see below). The remainder of each composite sample was then placed in a drying oven (60 °C) for 1 week with frequent mixing of the soil to prevent aggregation and liberate water. Organic wetland soils are sometimes dried at 70 °C, however high drying temperatures can volatilize non-water liquids and oxidize and decompose organic matter, so 50 °C is also a common drying temperature for organic soils (Gardner 1986, "Methods of Soil Analysis: Part 1", Soil Science Society of America); we accordingly chose 60 °C as a compromise between sufficient water removal and avoidance of non-water mass loss. Bulk density was determined as soil dry mass per core volume (adding back the dry mass equivalent of the damp subsample removed prior to drying). Dried subsamples were obtained for determination of soil organic matter (SOM), mineral texture composition, and extractable and total carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) within the following week. Sample analyses. A dried subsample was apportioned from each composite sample to determine SOM as mass loss on ignition at 550 °C for 4 h. After organic matter was removed from soil via ignition, mineral particle size composition was determined using a combination of wet sieving and density separation in 49 mM (3 %) sodium hexametaphosphate ((NaPO_3)_6) following procedures in Kettler et al. (2001, Soil Science Society of America Journal 65, 849-852). The percentage of dry soil mass composed of silt and clay particles (hereafter, fines) was calculated as the mass lost from dispersed mineral soil after sieving (0.053 mm mesh sieve). Fines could have been slightly underestimated if any clay particles were burned off during the preceding ignition of soil. An additional subsample was taken from each composite sample to determine extractable N and organic C concentrations via 0.5 M potassium sulfate (K_2SO_4) extractions. We combined soil and extractant (ratio of 1 g dry soil:5 mL extractant) in plastic bottles, reciprocally shook the slurry for 1 h at 120 rpm, and then gravity filtered it through Fisher G6 (1.6 μm pore size) glass fiber filters, followed by colorimetric detection of nitrite (NO_2^-) + nitrate (NO_3^-) and ammonium (NH_4^+) in the filtrate (Hood Nowotny et al., 2010,Soil Science Society of America Journal 74, 1018-1027) using a microplate spectrophotometer (Biotek Epoch, Winooski, VT, USA). Filtrate was also analyzed for dissolved organic C (referred to hereafter as extractable organic C) and total dissolved N via combustion and oxidation followed by detection of the evolved CO_2 and N oxide gases on a Formacs HT TOC/TN analyzer (Skalar, Breda, The Netherlands). Extractable organic N was then computed as total dissolved N in filtrate minus extractable mineral N (itself the sum of extractable NH_4-N and NO_2-N + NO_3-N). We determined soil total C and N from dried, milled subsamples subjected to elemental analysis (ECS 4010, Costech, Inc., Valencia, CA, USA) at the University of South Florida Stable Isotope Laboratory. Median concentration of inorganic C in unvegetated surface soil at our sites is 0.5 % of soil mass (Anderson, 2019, Univ. of South Florida M.S. thesis via methods in Wang et al., 2011, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 174, 241-257). Inorganic C concentrations are likely even lower in our samples from under vegetation, where organic matter would dilute the contribution of inorganic C to soil mass. Nevertheless, the presence of a small inorganic C pool in our soils may be counted in the total C values we report. Extractable organic C is necessarily of organic C origin given the method (sparging with HCl) used in detection. Active C and N represent the fractions of organic C and N that are mineralizable by soil microorganisms under aerobic conditions in long-term soil incubations. To quantify active C and N, 60 g of field-moist soil were apportioned from each composite sample, placed in a filtration apparatus, and incubated in the dark at 25 °C and field capacity moisture for 365 d (as in Lewis et al., 2014, Ecosphere 5, art59). Moisture levels were maintained by frequently weighing incubated soil and wetting them up to target mass. Daily CO_2 flux was quantified on 29 occasions at 0.5-3 week intervals during the incubation period (with shorter intervals earlier in the incubation), and these per day flux rates were integrated over the 365 d period to compute an estimate of active C. Observations of per day flux were made by sealing samples overnight in airtight chambers fitted with septa and quantifying headspace CO_2 accumulation by injecting headspace samples (obtained through the septa via needle and syringe) into an infrared gas analyzer (PP Systems EGM 4, Amesbury, MA, USA). To estimate active N, each incubated sample was leached with a C and N free, 35 psu solution containing micronutrients (Nadelhoffer, 1990, Soil Science Society of America Journal 54, 411-415) on 19 occasions at increasing 1-6 week intervals during the 365 d incubation, and then extracted in 0.5 M K_2SO_4 at the end of the incubation in order to remove any residual mineral N. Active N was then quantified as the total mass of mineral N leached and extracted. Mineral N in leached and extracted solutions was detected as NH_4-N and NO_2-N + NO_3-N via colorimetry as above. This incubation technique precludes new C and N inputs and persistently leaches mineral N, forcing microorganisms to meet demand by mineralizing existing pools, and thereby directly assays the potential activity of soil organic C and N pools present at the time of soil sampling. Because this analysis commences with disrupting soil physical structure, it is biased toward higher estimates of active fractions. Calculations. Non-mobile C and N fractions were computed as total C and N concentrations minus the extractable and active fractions of each element. This data package reports surface-soil constituents (moisture, fines, SOM, and C and N pools and fractions) in both gravimetric units (mass constituent / mass soil) and areal units (mass constituent / soil surface area integrated through 7.6 cm soil depth, the depth of sampling). Areal concentrations were computed as X × D × 7.6, where X is the gravimetric concentration of a soil constituent, D is soil bulk density (g dry soil / cm^3), and 7.6 is the sampling depth in cm. 
    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Understanding the controlling mechanisms of soil properties on ecosystem productivity is essential for sustaining productivity and increasing resilience under a changing climate. Here we investigate the control of topsoil depth (e.g., A horizons) on long‐term ecosystem productivity. We used nationwide observations (n = 2401) of topsoil depth and multiple scaled datasets of gross primary productivity (GPP) for five ecosystems (cropland, forest, grassland, pasture, shrubland) over 36 years (1986–2021) across the conterminous USA. The relationship between topsoil depth and GPP is primarily associated with water availability, which is particularly significant in arid regions under grassland, shrubland, and cropland (r = .37, .32, .15, respectively,p < .0001). For every 10 cm increase in topsoil depth, the GPP increased by 114 to 128 g C m−2 year−1in arid regions (r = .33 and .45,p < .0001). Paired comparison of relatively shallow and deep topsoils while holding other variables (climate, vegetation, parent material, soil type) constant showed that the positive control of topsoil depth on GPP occurred primarily in cropland (0.73, confidence interval of 0.57–0.84) and shrubland (0.75, confidence interval of 0.40–0.94). The GPP difference between deep and shallow topsoils was small and not statistically significant. Despite the positive control of topsoil depth on productivity in arid regions, its contribution (coefficients: .09–.33) was similar to that of heat (coefficients: .06–.39) but less than that of water (coefficients: .07–.87). The resilience of ecosystem productivity to climate extremes varied in different ecosystems and climatic regions. Deeper topsoils increased stability and decreased the variability of GPP under climate extremes in most ecosystems, especially in shrubland and grassland. The conservation of topsoil in arid regions and improvements of soil depth representation and moisture‐retention mechanisms are critical for carbon‐sequestration ecosystem services under a changing climate. These findings and relationships should also be included in Earth system models.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Vegetation structure and function are key design choices in terrestrial models that affect the relationship between carbon uptake and environmental drivers. Here, we investigate how representing canopy vertical structure in a terrestrial biosphere model—that is, micrometeorological, leaf area, and leaf water profiles—influences carbon uptake at five U.S. temperate deciduous forest sites in July. Specifically, we test whether the interannual variability (IAV) of gross primary productivity (GPP) responds differently to four abiotic environmental drivers—air temperature, relative humidity, incoming shortwave radiation, and soil moisture—using either a Community Land Model multilayer canopy model (CLM‐ml) or a big‐leaf model (CLM4.5/CLM5). We conclude that vertical leaf area and microclimatic profiles (temperature, humidity, and wind) do not impact GPP IAV compared to a single‐layer model when plant hydraulics is excluded. However, with a mechanistic representation of plant hydraulics there is vertically varying water stress in CLM‐ml, and the sensitivity of carbon uptake to particular climate variables changes with height, resulting in dampened canopy‐scale GPP IAV relative to CLM4.5. Dampening is due to both a reduced dependence on soil moisture and opposing climatic forcing on different leaf layers. Such dampening is not evident in the single‐layer representation of plant hydraulic water stress implemented in the recently released CLM5. Overall, both model representations of the canopy fail to accurately simulate observed GPP IAV and this may be related by their inability to capture the upper range of observed hourly GPP and diffuse light‐GPP relationships that cannot be resolved by canopy structure alone.

    more » « less