Texas A&M University Unveils North American Soil Moisture Database

The database is one step toward better information about the water held in soils.

soil moisture agriculture irrigation North America Texas data monitoring

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When the land is dry, farmers irrigate. A new database links data from soil moisture networks in three countries. Click image to enlarge.

Of all the gaps in water data, information about soil moisture – the saturation held in the first few feet of earth – is near the top of a hydrologist’s wish list. Climate scientists and farmers crave these figures too because they foretell drought and the potential for crop stress.

Even Barack Obama is on board. A U.S. soil moisture monitoring network is part of the National Drought Resilience Partnership, one prong in the climate change plan the president outlined in a June speech at Georgetown University.

No wonder then that Steven Quiring is excited.

Quiring, a climatologist at Texas A&M University, heads the North American Soil Moisture Database, the only source of standardized soil moisture data for the entire continent. The database was officially released last week at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco.

“We got a strong response. The agencies were glad that more people will benefit from their data.”

–Steven Quiring, associate professor
Texas A&M University

Creating the National Science Foundation-funded database posed two challenges. One was coordination. Soil moisture networks often have a local reach and are managed by a mash of universities and state and federal agencies.

“We blasted each agency with emails,” Quiring told me between sessions at the Moscone Convention Center. “It was encouraging. We got a strong response. The agencies were glad that more people will benefit from their data.”

The second hurdle was quality control. Quiring’s team developed a five-step algorithm to ensure that the stations included in the continental network used similar data-collection methods, such as measuring moisture at the same depth.

As of last week the database registered 1,300 stations in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.

Quiring thinks the database could be a prototype for the U.S. network envisioned in the Obama climate plan. The research team is also trying to generalize regional conditions from point measurements taken at individual stations.

“What is useful for drought monitoring are gridded products – what several stations say about a larger area,” Quiring explained.

Interest in soil moisture extends upward. Next year NASA will launch a satellite that monitors soil moisture. But an in-ground network is still needed to verify what is detected from orbit.

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