Accuracy of the cosmic-ray soil water content probe in humid forest ecosystems: The worst case scenario



[1] Soil water content is one of the key state variables in the soil-vegetation-atmosphere continuum due to its important role in the exchange of water and energy at the soil surface. A new promising method to measure integral soil water content at the field or small catchment scale is the cosmic-ray probe (CRP). Recent studies of CRP measurements have mainly presented results from test sites located in very dry areas and from agricultural fields with sandy soils. In this study, distributed continuous soil water content measurements from a wireless sensor network (SoilNet) were used to investigate the accuracy of CRP measurements for soil water content determination in a humid forest ecosystem. Such ecosystems are less favorable for CRP applications due to the presence of a litter layer. In addition, lattice water and carbohydrates of soil organic matter and belowground biomass reduce the effective sensor depth and thus were accounted for in the calibration of the CRP. The hydrogen located in the biomass decreased the level of neutron count rates and thus also decreased the sensitivity of the cosmic-ray probe, which in turn resulted in an increase of the measurement uncertainty. This uncertainty was compensated by using longer integration times (e.g., 24 h). For the Wüstebach forest site, the cosmic-ray probe enabled the assessment of integral daily soil water content dynamics with a RMSE of about 0.03 cm3/cm3 without explicitly considering the litter layer. By including simulated water contents of the litter layer in the calibration, a better accuracy could be achieved.