Improving soil moisture monitoring by the Oklahoma mesonet

by Oklahoma Water Resources Research Center

A picture of Dr. Tyler Ochsner.
Dr. Tyson Ochsner's (pictured above) research team has been working to increase the functionality of
the Oklahoma Mesonet with soil moisture monitoring. (Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Water
Resources Research Center.)

Since 1994, Oklahoma has operated a world-class network of weather monitoring stations, collectively called the Oklahoma Mesonet. Recently, one research team has been working to increase the functionality of this network with soil moisture monitoring.

Through the Water Resources Research Act, faculty can apply for a USGS 104(b) grant. This program provides seed money to three projects each year, encouraging collaboration and research to support Oklahoma’s future water needs. Tyson Ochsner, Sarkeys Distinguished Professor in the Plant and Soil Sciences Department at Oklahoma State University, received this grant in both 2010 and 2011. He describes his experience with the program as a “catalyst” for development.

“It really helps create an environment where water research can flourish,” Ochsner said.

“There is an interaction, a synergy kind of effect from having that community activity.”

Under the USGS 104(b) grant, Ochsner conducted a study titled “Drought Monitoring: A System for Tracking Plant Available Water Based on the Oklahoma Mesonet” to develop a Mesonet system that tracks the amount of water stored in the soil and available for plant uptake.

“The Mesonet is Oklahoma’s world-class environmental monitoring network, so the instruments for this study were all in place, but we needed a better understanding of the soil characteristics. We went to every Mesonet location and collected soil samples, brought those back to the lab, and analyzed them to determine the necessary soil properties.”

Through combining this data and the information gathered by the Oklahoma Mesonet sensors, statewide plant available water maps for 0-4, 0-16, and 0-32 inch soil layers are now generated daily and posted online at https://www.mesonet.org/index.php/weather/category/soil_moisture.

“For those interested in understanding the current status of the drought. These maps can also be used to compare different locations and find a perspective you don’t necessarily get with other maps.”

For current and future research, Ochsner is committed to improving soil moisture monitoring and developing new, practical uses for this information.

“We’re really interested in bringing these applications out of the theoretical realm to where it can really make an impact on the state and its communities and working with the Mesonet organization has opened up some opportunities for these other kinds of research.”

To produce an impact on Oklahoma, Ochsner’s team is currently researching ways to use the soil moisture data to predict wildfire risk, estimate soil moisture in Oklahoma croplands, monitor drought across the south-central region of the US, track groundwater recharge, and understand factors that impact the Lugert-Altus irrigation district (funded through the Joint Fire Science Program grant, the National Resource Conservation Service’s Conservation Innovation Grant, South Central Climate Center, and subsequent USGS 104(b) grants, respectively).

A picture of a researcher analyzing data collected from the COSMOS rover.
(Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Water Resources Research Center).

Ochsner met colleagues with similar goals while conducting this research, including his collaborator Dr. Michael Cosh from the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, MD. Together Ochsner and Cosh now head the research team at the Marena Oklahoma In Situ Sensor Testbed (MOISST), an international research site where investigators collaborate to refine existing and emerging soil moisture monitoring technologies.

Through MOISST, Ochsner also began to collaborate with Dr. Marek Zreda from the University of Arizona, the developer of the COsmic Ray Soil Moisture Observing System (COSMOS). This transformative new technology allows field-scale soil moisture monitoring and large-area soil moisture mapping with a COSMOS rover. Through the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF EPSCoR) grant, Ochsner’s team has acquired a COSMOS rover and continues to pursue more accurate soil moisture maps.

Ochsner attributes much of this progress to his assistants.

“At the end of the day, our students really make the difference on whether a project is successful and my group has benefitted tremendously from some really outstanding assistants working on these projects.”

Through USGS 104(b) grant supported research, Ochsner’s students used the training and experience in the field as a starting point for their own futures. For example, Samuel Wallace and Jordan Beehler completed undergraduate research projects, and Bethany Scott and Briana Wyatt, profiled by NIWR.info in 2016, pursued their graduate degrees under the guidance of Ochsner. In 2017, Briana Wyatt, now a Ph.D. in Soil Science, received funding from the Oklahoma Water Resources Center for her projectModeling soil moisture under various land cover types: using long-term grassland monitoring data to estimate soil moisture in Oklahoma forests”.

Ochsner also gives credit to the initial grant and the communities it encouraged.

“The USGS 104(b) grant system has been very important to my program in terms of getting some research started and establishing connections with other researchers and Oklahoma stakeholders. Thanks in large part to the people that run the program, the grant has played a catalyst role.”

View the final report for this project here. For other USGS 104(b) grant studies in Oklahoma, please visit the Oklahoma Water Resources Center website.