Determination of Moisture Content in Soil

Environmental Microbiology

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Overview

Source: Laboratories of Dr. Ian Pepper and Dr. Charles Gerba - Arizona University
Demonstrating Author: Bradley Schmitz

Soils normally contain a finite amount of water, which can be expressed as the “soil moisture content.” This moisture exists within the pore spaces in between soil aggregates (inter-aggregate pore space) and within soil aggregates (intra-aggregate pore space) (Figure 1). Normally this pore space is occupied by air and/or water. If all the pores are occupied by air, the soil is completely dry. If all the pores are filled with water, the soil is said to be saturated.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Pore space in soil.

Cite this Video

JoVE Science Education Database. Environmental Microbiology. Determination of Moisture Content in Soil. JoVE, Cambridge, MA, (2017).

Principles

In outdoor natural environments, water is added to soil via rainfall or deliberate irrigation of plants. In either case, soil moisture increases as more pores become filled with water at the expense of air. If all the pores become filled with water, excess water will now leach downward (Figure 2) through continuous soil pores, until the rain or irrigation ceases. Leaching will continue until the water films within the pores are held by the surface tension of soil colloids against the force of gravity. Such a situation is referred to as the soil being at “field capacity” with respect to soil moisture. A soil at field capacity has pores partially filled with air, surrounded by soil moisture films. Normally a soil at field capacity is optimal for plant growth and aerobic soil microorganisms, since both air and water are available. In contrast, a saturated soil will create waterlogged anaerobic conditions that can kill plants and suppress aerobic soil microbes, while stimulating anaerobic microbes.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Nutrients leaching in soil.

Consider a sample of moist soil within a container such as a beaker. The weight of the moist soil consists of the weight of the dry soil particles plus the weight of the water within the soil. If more water is added to the soil, the wet weight of the soil increases. The dry weight of the soil particles within the sample is fixed i.e., one weight which is the dry weight. In contrast, there are an infinite number of wet weights, depending upon how much water is added to the soil. Because of this, when doing lab experiments with soil, the moisture content of the soil is normally expressed on a dry weight basis, because the dry weight is constant over time, whereas the moist or wet weight can change over time. When expressing the results of an experiment such as the nutrient content of a soil, use of the dry weight basis provides standardization of the final result.

Procedure

  1. Weigh both of the aluminum dishes.
  2. Aliquot approximately 50 g of moist soil into each aluminum dish and reweigh the dishes. Hence, the moist weight of the soil sample is now known.
  3. Dry the soil overnight at 105 °C in the oven.
  4. Remove the dishes from the oven and allow them to cool.
  5. Reweigh the dishes plus the oven dry soil. Now the weight of the dry soil is known.

The amount of water held in soil is an important component of biological and ecological processes, and is used in applications such as farming, erosion prevention, flood control, and drought prediction.

Soils typically contain a finite amount of water, which can be expressed as the soil moisture content. Moisture exists in soil within the pore spaces between soil aggregates, called inter-aggregate pore space, and within pores in the soil aggregates themselves, called intra-aggregate pore space. If the pore space is occupied entirely by air, the soil is completely dry. If all of the pores are filled with water, the soil is saturated.

The measurement of the amount of water held within the soil, or the soil moisture content, is essential to the understanding of soil characteristics and the types of plants and microorganisms that reside in it.

This video will introduce the basics of soil moisture content, and demonstrate the procedure for determining moisture content in the laboratory.

In outdoor environments, water is added to soil naturally through rainfall or deliberately with the irrigation of plants. As the pores in the soil become filled with water at the expense of air, the soil moisture increases. When all of the pores are filled with water, the soil is saturated. If the soil at the surface is saturated, excess water will leach downward through pores into deeper soil. Leaching continues until there is not enough water to saturate all of the pore space. At this point pores contain some air and thin films of moisture. The water films within the pores are held by the surface tension of soil colloids, thus water stops leaching.

After leaching stops, and excess water has drained from the soil, the soil is described as being at field capacity. Soil at field capacity has pores that are partially filled with air, surrounded by films of moisture. Soil at field capacity is optimal for plant growth and aerobic soil microorganisms, since both air and water are available. In contrast, saturated soil, where all pores are filled with water, will create an anaerobic environment that can kill plants and suppress aerobic soil microbes.

The mass of moist soil consists of the mass of the dry soil particles, plus the mass of the water within the soil. The dry mass of the soil particles is fixed, whereas the amount of water within moist soil can vary. Therefore, moisture content is calculated on a dry basis, rather than a total mass basis, to ensure consistency. The moisture content of soil is described as the ratio of the mass of water held in the soil to the dry soil. The mass of water is determined by the difference before and after drying the soil.

The following experiment will demonstrate how to measure soil moisture content in the laboratory using these principles.

To begin, collect soil samples and transfer them into the laboratory. Samples of soil can be collected in the field using a soil auger, or a trowel. Use of a soil auger allows for the soil to be sampled to specific depths. Transfer them into the laboratory. Weigh two aluminum dishes, and accurately record the weight of each dish. Aliquot approximately 20 g of the moist soil into each aluminum dish, then reweigh the dish. Subtract the weight of the empty dish from the full dish to acquire the moist soil weight.

Next, dry the soil overnight in an oven set to 105 °C. On the next day, carefully remove the soil samples from the oven using tongs. Place the soil samples on the bench top to cool. When the dry soil samples are cool, reweigh them and record the total weight. Subtract the weight of the aluminum dish, and record the dry soil weight.

Calculate the moisture content of the soil by subtracting the weight of the dry soil from the weight of the moist soil, and then dividing by the weight of the dry soil.

Although the measurement is simple, it is important to determine soil moisture content in order to better understand soil characteristics.

Soil moisture content plays a large roll in environmental concerns, especially when considering soil runoff that may contain fertilizers and pesticides. In this example, soil runoff was analyzed using a simulated rainfall study in order to determine the retention of a compound in moist soil.

Soil, containing urea, was packed into soil boxes and assembled under a rainfall simulator. Soil runoff was collected, and the concentration of urea in the runoff water calculated. The amount of urea in the soil runoff was higher for soils that had higher moisture content, indicating that urea is better absorbed in drier soil, than in moist.

The fate of chemicals in soil can also be analyzed by direct pore water sampling, using a lysimeter, as shown in this example. In this experiment, lysimeters, or long metal tubing, were installed in soil with turf grass to analyze pore water in vegetative soil.

The pore water sampler was then installed, and water pumped from the lysimeter after applying chemicals to the soil. The collected water was then analyzed, and the concentration of applied chemicals correlated to soil depth and moisture content.

The results demonstrated that the concentration of the herbicide monosodium methyl arsenate, or MSMA, was the highest in the top 2 cm of soil.

You've just watched JoVE's introduction to soil moisture content. You should now understand how to accurately measure soil moisture content in the laboratory. Thanks for watching!

Results

Calculate the soil moisture content for each of the replicate samples using the following equation:

% moisture content (MC) =

(dry wt. basis)

Example Calculations:

M = 102 g

D = 90 g

∴ % MC =

MC = 13.3%

With the addition of 5 g of water, new M = 107 and D still equals 90

∴ % MC =

New MC = 18.9%
 

Applications and Summary

Knowledge of the moisture content of a soil on a dry weight basis is useful in a number of ways. For example, if the experiments are conducted with soil that should be amended with a known concentration of ammonium fertilizer (for example 50 μg/g), then the moisture content on a dry weight basis must be determined. If the calculation was completed on a wet weight basis, the amount of fertilizer to be added would depend on the moisture content (and therefore the moist weight) of the soil sample. Likewise, if potted plants are considered, the moisture content must be known in order to make sure that the soil isn’t too dry (not enough moisture for plant growth) or too wet (waterlogged and anaerobic). In a field situation, knowledge of the soil moisture content can prevent excess irrigation and leaching of soil nutrients.

  1. Weigh both of the aluminum dishes.
  2. Aliquot approximately 50 g of moist soil into each aluminum dish and reweigh the dishes. Hence, the moist weight of the soil sample is now known.
  3. Dry the soil overnight at 105 °C in the oven.
  4. Remove the dishes from the oven and allow them to cool.
  5. Reweigh the dishes plus the oven dry soil. Now the weight of the dry soil is known.

The amount of water held in soil is an important component of biological and ecological processes, and is used in applications such as farming, erosion prevention, flood control, and drought prediction.

Soils typically contain a finite amount of water, which can be expressed as the soil moisture content. Moisture exists in soil within the pore spaces between soil aggregates, called inter-aggregate pore space, and within pores in the soil aggregates themselves, called intra-aggregate pore space. If the pore space is occupied entirely by air, the soil is completely dry. If all of the pores are filled with water, the soil is saturated.

The measurement of the amount of water held within the soil, or the soil moisture content, is essential to the understanding of soil characteristics and the types of plants and microorganisms that reside in it.

This video will introduce the basics of soil moisture content, and demonstrate the procedure for determining moisture content in the laboratory.

In outdoor environments, water is added to soil naturally through rainfall or deliberately with the irrigation of plants. As the pores in the soil become filled with water at the expense of air, the soil moisture increases. When all of the pores are filled with water, the soil is saturated. If the soil at the surface is saturated, excess water will leach downward through pores into deeper soil. Leaching continues until there is not enough water to saturate all of the pore space. At this point pores contain some air and thin films of moisture. The water films within the pores are held by the surface tension of soil colloids, thus water stops leaching.

After leaching stops, and excess water has drained from the soil, the soil is described as being at field capacity. Soil at field capacity has pores that are partially filled with air, surrounded by films of moisture. Soil at field capacity is optimal for plant growth and aerobic soil microorganisms, since both air and water are available. In contrast, saturated soil, where all pores are filled with water, will create an anaerobic environment that can kill plants and suppress aerobic soil microbes.

The mass of moist soil consists of the mass of the dry soil particles, plus the mass of the water within the soil. The dry mass of the soil particles is fixed, whereas the amount of water within moist soil can vary. Therefore, moisture content is calculated on a dry basis, rather than a total mass basis, to ensure consistency. The moisture content of soil is described as the ratio of the mass of water held in the soil to the dry soil. The mass of water is determined by the difference before and after drying the soil.

The following experiment will demonstrate how to measure soil moisture content in the laboratory using these principles.

To begin, collect soil samples and transfer them into the laboratory. Samples of soil can be collected in the field using a soil auger, or a trowel. Use of a soil auger allows for the soil to be sampled to specific depths. Transfer them into the laboratory. Weigh two aluminum dishes, and accurately record the weight of each dish. Aliquot approximately 20 g of the moist soil into each aluminum dish, then reweigh the dish. Subtract the weight of the empty dish from the full dish to acquire the moist soil weight.

Next, dry the soil overnight in an oven set to 105 °C. On the next day, carefully remove the soil samples from the oven using tongs. Place the soil samples on the bench top to cool. When the dry soil samples are cool, reweigh them and record the total weight. Subtract the weight of the aluminum dish, and record the dry soil weight.

Calculate the moisture content of the soil by subtracting the weight of the dry soil from the weight of the moist soil, and then dividing by the weight of the dry soil.

Although the measurement is simple, it is important to determine soil moisture content in order to better understand soil characteristics.

Soil moisture content plays a large roll in environmental concerns, especially when considering soil runoff that may contain fertilizers and pesticides. In this example, soil runoff was analyzed using a simulated rainfall study in order to determine the retention of a compound in moist soil.

Soil, containing urea, was packed into soil boxes and assembled under a rainfall simulator. Soil runoff was collected, and the concentration of urea in the runoff water calculated. The amount of urea in the soil runoff was higher for soils that had higher moisture content, indicating that urea is better absorbed in drier soil, than in moist.

The fate of chemicals in soil can also be analyzed by direct pore water sampling, using a lysimeter, as shown in this example. In this experiment, lysimeters, or long metal tubing, were installed in soil with turf grass to analyze pore water in vegetative soil.

The pore water sampler was then installed, and water pumped from the lysimeter after applying chemicals to the soil. The collected water was then analyzed, and the concentration of applied chemicals correlated to soil depth and moisture content.

The results demonstrated that the concentration of the herbicide monosodium methyl arsenate, or MSMA, was the highest in the top 2 cm of soil.

You've just watched JoVE's introduction to soil moisture content. You should now understand how to accurately measure soil moisture content in the laboratory. Thanks for watching!

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