Articles | Volume 19, issue 1
Research article
21 Jan 2015
Research article |  | 21 Jan 2015

Using measured soil water contents to estimate evapotranspiration and root water uptake profiles – a comparative study

M. Guderle and A. Hildebrandt

Abstract. Understanding the role of plants in soil water relations, and thus ecosystem functioning, requires information about root water uptake. We evaluated four different complex water balance methods to estimate sink term patterns and evapotranspiration directly from soil moisture measurements. We tested four methods. The first two take the difference between two measurement intervals as evapotranspiration, thus neglecting vertical flow. The third uses regression on the soil water content time series and differences between day and night to account for vertical flow. The fourth accounts for vertical flow using a numerical model and iteratively solves for the sink term. None of these methods requires any a priori information of root distribution parameters or evapotranspiration, which is an advantage compared to common root water uptake models. To test the methods, a synthetic experiment with numerical simulations for a grassland ecosystem was conducted. Additionally, the time series were perturbed to simulate common sensor errors, like those due to measurement precision and inaccurate sensor calibration. We tested each method for a range of measurement frequencies and applied performance criteria to evaluate the suitability of each method. In general, we show that methods accounting for vertical flow predict evapotranspiration and the sink term distribution more accurately than the simpler approaches. Under consideration of possible measurement uncertainties, the method based on regression and differentiating between day and night cycles leads to the best and most robust estimation of sink term patterns. It is thus an alternative to more complex inverse numerical methods. This study demonstrates that highly resolved (temporally and spatially) soil water content measurements may be used to estimate the sink term profiles when the appropriate approach is used.

Short summary
This paper is the result of a numerical study to test the application of water balance methods for estimating evapotranspiration and water extraction profiles based on measured soil water content data. The advantage of the tested methods is that they do not rely on a priori information of any root distribution parameters. Our research shows the potential of water balance methods for derivation of water extraction profiles, but their application may be challenging in realistic conditions.