Managing drought through better prediction of soil water content

Drought conditions can be better predicted

Drought conditions can occur almost anywhere and can have severe impacts to society, the environment and the economy. When water conditions drops below the average for a given region, water shortages may arise.  During these times reduced soil moisture occurs as plants withdraw the remaining amount of available water from the soil system. Insufficient water can cause plant stress resulting in reduced yields and above ground biomass.

Drought monitoring can be an effective way to minimize the negative effects during water shortages. Better predictors of drought such as through determination of soil water content can indicate the beginning of, extent or improvement of drought conditions. Quantifying drought conditions through the use of models using meteorological data could improve how we manage our natural ecosystems.

Drought Prediction Modeling

In a recent article by Engda et al. (2016) from the University of Wyoming, expected soil water content was calculated to monitor drought conditions in a rangeland soil. A model was developed using historical climate data that could capture the local soil water dynamics—how water moves through an ecosystem via precipitation, infiltration, evapotranspiration. Previously, models assessing soil water content spatially and for short observation records has had limited use in drought monitoring. In field measurements of soil water content are often cumbersome and may not capture the heterogeneity of conditions that results from soil water dynamics. As well, field measurements are rarely completed on a regional scale.

The results of the study indicate that the authors were capable of predicting, reasonably well, the expected soil water content throughout the growing season. Using the model presented by the authors, historical data that is readily available can be used rather than long term soil moisture studies. Their results showed that the spatial distribution of soil moisture content could be modeled to determine when soil moisture deficits occurred. The model could also calculate when an agricultural drought has ended even if a hydrological drought has not.

Although many believe that droughts are a natural event that cannot be altered by human intervention, this article suggests that we may be able to better manage for drought conditions through soil water content modeling. Predicting soil water content can be used to optimize water use and manage soil properties to moderate drought conditions. By enhancing soil water infiltration and soil water storage capacity, we can increase the volume of water retained in the soil and minimize the amount of water lost as runoff. Improving the root zone conditions can conserve higher volumes of water in the soil system. Plants can draw on these water reserves which reduces the amount of water inputs required.

Duraroot’s team of soil scientists can assess modeled soil moisture conditions to help develop management strategies for water conservation. When monitoring soil moisture on local or regional scales model based estimations of water content may be more feasible and cost efficient than in field sampling. Calculating soil moisture can help save water, reduce costs and energy, increase yields and protect the environment.  Our team’s background in soil science can enable us to provide soil water monitoring in agricultural, and pasturelands, as well as urban and forestry landscapes.

Reference

Engda, T.A., T.J. Kelleners, and G.B. Paige. 2016. Soil Water Monitoring and Numerical Flow Modeling to Quantify Drought Conditions in a Rangeland Ecosystem. Vadose Zone J. 15. doi:10.2136/vzj2016.04.0036

About the Author

Christina Hebb is a soil scientist specializing in reclamation, with a focus on soil physics and moisture characteristics.  She can be reached at chebb@duroot.com.

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