Pretty Porous

Water and nutrient transport by roots in near-surface soils

About a third of the earth’s surface is covered by land. More than a third of the land surface is agricultural area (pastures, acreage) and one third is covered by forests. Plants and crops substantially influence the nutrient balance in near-surface soil layer (in the ‘vadose zone’). They play a crucial role for the local water budget and water exchange between soil and atmosphere. Water transpires—particularly during the day with the help of the sun—from small vents in the plant’s leaves. The transpiration causes a suction effect which drives water into the roots and upwards through a vascular system (the root xylem) all the way to the leaves. Both soil and roots are porous media! The appearance and structure of the root system differs between plant species and changes with environmental factors (e.g. soil water content).

Some plants exude a gel-like substance which alters the hydraulic properties of the soil and enables the plant to take up water from very dry soil. Fine root hairs on the surface of roots are assumed to play an important role for water uptake. Complex root architectures can lead to a local redistribution of the available water. Such process cannot only be observed in experiments but can also be analyzed with computer simulations. For example, the complex interaction between direct evaporation from soil and transpiration from plants can be investigated by using simulations. Here, simulations have a crucial advantage over experiments. Processes can simply be switched on and off. This allows to investigate a process and its effect in isolation as well as in interaction with other processes. On the basis of investigations with detailed models of one or a small number of plants, it can be decided whether such processes can be neglected or must be considered in large-scale simulation such as climate models.

At the University of Stuttgart, we work—together with colleagues at Forschungszentrum Jülich— on the development of novel computer models for water and nutrient transport, root-soil interaction and root growth. These models are innovative tools for the assessment of scientific theories and hypotheses about water transport in soil. However, this is only possible under the premise that these models accurately represent all considered processes. For instance, most state-of-the-art models overestimate root water uptake in dry soils for a given atmospheric pressure. We analyze computer models and create improved model which address known shortcomings.

Credits: University of Stuttgart / Timo Koch