Articles | Volume 20, issue 4
Research article
07 Apr 2016
Research article |  | 07 Apr 2016

Estimating field-scale root zone soil moisture using the cosmic-ray neutron probe

Amber M. Peterson, Warren D. Helgason, and Andrew M. Ireson

Abstract. Many practical hydrological, meteorological, and agricultural management problems require estimates of soil moisture with an areal footprint equivalent to field scale, integrated over the entire root zone. The cosmic-ray neutron probe is a promising instrument to provide field-scale areal coverage, but these observations are shallow and require depth-scaling in order to be considered representative of the entire root zone. A study to identify appropriate depth-scaling techniques was conducted at a grazing pasture site in central Saskatchewan, Canada over a 2-year period. Area-averaged soil moisture was assessed using a cosmic-ray neutron probe. Root zone soil moisture was measured at 21 locations within the 500 m  ×  500 m study area, using a down-hole neutron probe. The cosmic-ray neutron probe was found to provide accurate estimates of field-scale surface soil moisture, but measurements represented less than 40 % of the seasonal change in root zone storage due to its shallow measurement depth. The root zone estimation methods evaluated were: (a) the coupling of the cosmic-ray neutron probe with a time-stable neutron probe monitoring location, (b) coupling the cosmic-ray neutron probe with a representative landscape unit monitoring approach, and (c) convolution of the cosmic-ray neutron probe measurements with the exponential filter. The time stability method provided the best estimate of root zone soil moisture (RMSE  =  0.005 cm3 cm−3), followed by the exponential filter (RMSE  =  0.014 cm3 cm−3). The landscape unit approach, which required no calibration, had a negative bias but estimated the cumulative change in storage reasonably. The feasibility of applying these methods to field sites without existing instrumentation is discussed. Based upon its observed performance and its minimal data requirements, it is concluded that the exponential filter method has the most potential for estimating root zone soil moisture from cosmic-ray neutron probe data.

Short summary
Remote sensing techniques can provide useful large-scale estimates of soil moisture. However, these methods often only sense near-surface soil moisture, whereas many applications require estimates of the entire root zone. In this study we propose and test methods to "depth-scale" the shallow soil moisture measurements obtained using the cosmic-ray neutron probe to represent the entire root zone, thereby improving the applicability of this measurement approach.