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Manufacturing simple and inexpensive soil surface temperature and gravimetric water content sensors

December 21, 2019

Quantifying temperature and moisture at the soil surface is essential for understanding how soil surface biota respond to changes in the environment. However, at the soil surface these variables are highly dynamic and standard sensors do not explicitly measure temperature or moisture in the upper few millimeters of the soil profile. This paper describes methods for manufacturing simple, inexpensive sensors that simultaneously measure the temperature and moisture of the upper 5 mm of the soil surface. In addition to sensor construction, steps for quality control, as well as for calibration for various substrates, are explained. The sensors incorporate a Type E thermocouple to measure temperature and assess soil moisture by measuring the resistance between two gold-plated metal probes at the end of the sensor at a depth of 5 mm. The methods presented here can be altered to customize probes for different depths or substrates. These sensors have been effective in a variety of environments and have endured months of heavy rains in tropical forests as well as intense solar radiation in deserts of the southwestern U.S. Results demonstrate the effectiveness of these sensors for evaluating warming, drying, and freezing of the soil surface in a global change experiment.