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EXPERIENCES IN MEASURING SOIL MOISTURE

CONTENT BY NEUTRON LOGGING

P. van der BURGH


Senior Engineer with the Service for Water Management
of " Rijkswaterstaat " (Netherlands)

RÉSUMÉ

Le rapport traite de la détermination de l'humidité du sol par la méthode nucléaire,


notamment par carottage à neutrons. Cette méthode présente plusieurs avantages
sur la méthode classique de la détermination par pesage d'échantillons. Elle est rapide,
économique et non destructive, c'est-à-dire que les mesurages périodiques peuvent
être exécutés dans une même verticale du sol. Ainsi, on peut déterminer les changements
de la teneur en eau des différents horizons dans le sous-sol à courts intervalles et
avec une grande précision.
L'expérience avec cette méthode acquise aux Pays-Bas a montré qu'il est mainte-
nant possible d'élargir considérablement le champ des recherches hydrologiqucs.
Il est connu que le mouvement des eaux dans la partie non saturée du sous-sol forme
la phase la plus compliquée et la plus mal connue du cycle hydrologiquc. La méthode
nucléaire peut être appliquée dans les recherches les plus diverses : détermination
de l'évapotranspiration sur des périodes de courte durée, essais avec des cases
lysimétriques, étude du bilan d'eau de bassins expérimentaux, prévision des débits
de crue, etc.
La mise en œuvre de la méthode nucléaire demande toutefois un étalonnage
précis pour tenir compte des particularités du milieu physique.
Dans le génie civil la méthode nucléaire de la détermination de l'humidité du
sol peut-être appliquée des problèmes de la stabilité de digues et barrages en terre,
comportement de la fondation de routes, propagation des ondes de choc dans des
masses de terre, etc.

1. INTRODUCTION

The method of measuring the soil moisture content of the soil by neutron logging
is coming more to the fore superseding gradually the commonly used method of
determining the water content by weight.
In 1959 the first set of instruments (depth probe, surface probe and sealer),
manufactured by "Nuclear Chicago Corporation" (U.S.A.), became available in the
Netherlands.
The moisture measurements depend on the moderation of high energy neutrons
by the hydrogen atoms and subsequent yield of slow neutrons, detected by a BwFz
detector, which is sensitive only to slow neutrons. The moderation of fast neutrons
to slower ones is directly proportional to the number of hydrogen atoms contained
in the soil. The calibration graph supplied for the moisture gauge is valid for inorganic
soils, whose hydrogen content is primarily that of the water molecules, which are
usually removed by drying in an oven at 105 "C for 18 hours.
The portable sealer contains a timer, a rechargeable battery, a high voltage
supply for the gauges and five glow tubes or decade counters which can accumulate
up to 99,999 counts.
Purchase of the first set of instruments was made when no other possibilities
were available for measuring the changing moisture content of the soil as an important
factor in evaporation research with the aid of lysimeters.
The accuracy of the observed values with respect to the precipitation, the quan-
tity of drain water and the change of the stored water in the soil is of great importance
in the determination of the evapo-transpiration under different hydrological, meteo-
rological and agricultural conditions.

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Up to 1959 the change in soil moisture content in lysimeters has been deter-
mined by taking samples outside the lysimeters. Much research work was done with
gypsum blocks and resistance-elements, but the accuracy of these methods was not
satisfactory.
In 1959 the instruments were put in operation in accordance with the manu-
facturer's instructions.
The advantages and disadvantages of the use of these instruments will be discus-
sed here.

2. ADVANTAGES OF THE NUCLEAR METHOD

2.1 The speed of the measurements


Immediately aftei a measurement lasting one or two minutes the result can be
determined with the aid of a valid calibration curve for the type of soil concerned.

2.2 The reliability


Many sources of human error are eliminated. The results of two consecutive
measurements normally differ less than 2%. At differences more than 2% a third
measurement is performed and the average of three measurements is considered as
the best figure.

2.3 The method is not destructive


A great advantage above the sampling method is, that the nuclear method is
not destructive. Long term studies can be made by installing permanent access tubes
in certain locations in the field. Especially for comparative determinations the non-
destructivity is ot' extreme importance, while the basic conditions don't change within
a time interval of some days or weeks, except the unknown factor of soil moisture
content.

2.4 Sensitive volumes of soil are large


With the depth probe the soil-moisture content is determined in a spherical
space with a diameter varying between 15 to 35 cm. The diameter increases with
decreasing soil-moisture content.

2.5 The method offers nearly unlimited possibilities for research aims
Measurements can be made with depth gauges from 12 n to 200 ft below the
surface. Standard cables have lengths of 25 ft. Where traditional methods of deter-
mining soil moisture contents fail, e.g. below road constructions or in waterturning
dams and embankments, the nuclear method offers an attractive possibility.

3. RULES OF CAUTION WITH RESPECT TO THE APPLICATION OF THE NUCLEAR METHOD

3.1 Field personnel should be aware of potential sources of error and should make
reasonably frequent checks on the operation of the equipment
In the early period of use of the equipment many troubles caused gaps in the
required continuity of performance of the measuring programme. Accessories were

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not available in the Netherlands, so that repairs took much time. Therefore a spare
set of instrumants was required to limit the periods of interruption.

3.2 The number of standard counts must be checked frequently


The number of standard counts is obtained by putting the depth probe in its
shield of lead and paraffine. For standardizing the surface gauge in the field a separate
paraffine stand is used.
Experience shows, that a rather high sensitivity for temperature changes may
be present after some time of use. Standardizing a two years old depth probe, a number
of 5785 per minute standard counts were measured at a temperature of-5°C, 5181
counts/min. at a temperature of 17 °C and still less at higher temperatures.
Probably this trouble was seated in the Geiger Müller-detector which according
to the manufacturers manual has to be replaced after a use of two years.

3.3 Measurements in a thin layer are not feasible.


Against the advantage of determining the moisture content as an average of
a large volume of soil, remains the disadvantage that measurements of the moisture
content of a thin layer cannot be done.
At some distance above the ground water level more counts per minute will be
registrated than corresponds with the moisture content at the relevant dej.th and
a more gradual change of the moisture content with the depth will be recorded.
Semi-pervious layers in sandy soils too may cause similar difficulties. At small depths,
i.e. of 0-20 cm below the ground level, the effect of the air above the surface causes
the number oi counts per minute to be smaller than would correspond to the actual
soil moisture content. In this case the surface probe has to be used. The measurements
with the surface probe refer to comparatively large volumes of soil, so that it is diffi-
cult to assess the correct depth at which the measured moisture content is found.
Normally a depth of about 10 cm is considered as being decisive. On the other hand,
experiments show that the number of counts per minute is still influenced by a free
water surface at a distance of 50 cm. The results of the measurements therefore should
be interpreted very carefully.

3.4 Effect of special elements in the soil


Certain elements such as Chlorine, Manganese, Cadmium and Lithium may
moderate the neutrons and thus lead to errors in the moisture determinations. Bound
hydrogen and other organic matter in the soil will also effect the readings.
In a large part of the Netherlands the ground water has a high chlorid content.
Measurements have been done in a cylindrical drum with a diamater of 60 cm and a
height of 73 cm filled with fresh water and with sea water.
freshwater 15.110 cnts/min.
sea water 12.267 cnts/min.
In sea water only 81 % of the counts per minute in fresh water were measured.
The results of measurements must be interpreted carefully, when certain elements
are present in the soil.

3.5 Effect of the placement of access tubes.


A tight junction should exist between the soil medium and the access tube. A
hole is pierced into the soil by a soil auger, with a diameter 10 mm smaller than the
outer diameter of the tube. Existing cavities around the tube introduce errors in the
absolute moisture indications.

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As an example the results of measurements are mentioned with tubes of different
diameters in a drum filled with fresh water and sea water respectively.

outer diameter of the tube

44.5 mm 51 mm

fresh water 15.110cnts/min. 11.171 cnts/min.


sea water 12.267 cnts/min. 9.167 cnts/min.

The measurements were performed under otherwise similar conditions. The in-
crease of the outer diameter with 7 mm causes a decrease of 25% of the number of
counts per minute. For determining the calibration curve, the manufacturer used
a tube with an outer diameter of 41.26 mm. The number of counts in 100% fresh
water was 19.057 per minute.
The relation of the measured number of counts per minute appears to be in-
versely proportional to the square of the distance between the centre of the radiation
source and the outside of the tubes, which seems very acceptable from a theoretical
point of view. The relation between the number of pulses is 1 : 1.35 : 1.7 and the reci-
procal relation of the squares of the distances 1 : 1.35 : 1.62.
Close junction must exist between the soil medium and the tube, because of
the errors which will be introduced in the absolute value of the moisture content
by hole spaces around the tube.

4. PROGRAMME OF RESEARCH IN THE NETHERLANDS

4.1 Lysimeter measurements

Measurements of soil-moisture content are performed in the most important


lysimeters in the Netherlands. The property of non-destructivity of the nuclear
method is of primary importance in lysimeter research. In the "Rottcgatspolder"
measurements are performed once per 14 days in 5 tubes placed in each of the four
lysimeters with dimensions of 25 m X 25 m. By using additional data the evapotranspi-
ration can be computed for periods of 14 days. In summertime nuclear measurements
are performed each week so that the weekly evapotranspiration can be determined.
In the "Rottegatspoldcr" with an acreage of 86 hectares 9 tubes more have
been installed, where measurements occur once a month, so that the evapotranspi-
ration of the whole polder can be determined once a month.
In Castricum the lysimeters of the Provincial Water Board have different vegetal
covers. One of the four lysimeters with areas of 25 m length and 25 m width has a
bare sandy soil surface. The second one is covered by a natural dune vegetation. The
other two lysimeters are covered respectively by leaf trees and needle trees.
The influence of the different plants on the recharge of ground water originating
from precipitation has been studied. As an example the result of the evapotranspiration
of the four lysimeters during the year 1961 is reproduced in figure 1.

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Fig. 1 — Open water evaporation and evapotranspiration of different lysimetcrs
at Castricum in 1961.
Eo — open water evaporation in mm
En = evapotranspiration of lysimeter covered with needle trees
Ei = evapotranspiration of lysimeter covered with loaf trees
Ea = evapotranspiration of lysimeter covered with natural dune vegetation
Etc — evaporation of a bare soil lysimeter
The values En, Ei and Ei are effected by interception of precipitation.

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4.2 Measurements in experimentalfieldsand in orchards.
Many measurements have been performed in experimental plots and in orchards
to get a better knowledge of the water management of soils with different vegetal
covers.
Drainage conditions have been determined by studying the results of lysimeters
during many years. After introducing weighablc types of lysimeters the evapotranspi-
ration during short periods could be studied.
The nuclear method opens the possibility for performing the required obser-
vations under field conditions. In this way studies of evapotranspiration of woods
and orchards have come within the reach of possibilities.

4.3 Measurements in polders and in natural watersheds.


For the investigation of water management in polders and watersheds many
measurements are performed, the results of which are studied conjunctively with
other meteorological, geohydrological and agricultural data.
In the "Leerinkbeek" watershed in the Netherlands the change of soil-moisture
content is determined at 7 different locations once per two weeks. Determination
of the evapotranspiration of various crops on rather dry sandy soils is one of the
primary objects of this investigation. As an example the result of the changes in
soil-moisture content of different layers is reproduced in figure 2 for different vegetal
covers in the year 1962.
In October 1962 observations started in a polder of 200 ha in the western part
of the Netherlands. The results in this grass-covered polder will be compared with the
results of the Rottegatspoldcr with heavy clay soils.
Observations of the change in soil moisture are done in 7 different tubes once
in 14 days.

4.4 Special types of investigations.


Nuclear methods offer many other possibilities in the field of civil engineering.
Examples refer to construction and maintenance of roads, dams and embankments.
Infiltration and seepage of water are important factors for subsoil stability.
Long-term studies can be made with the moisture and density gauges on roads, dams
and embankments to determine changes in moisture and density.
A measuring programme has been envisaged to study the moisture conditions in
highways with different foundations and both concrete and asphaltic covers.
A second special type of investigations is dealing with the effects of shock waves
on soil moisture and density. The propagation of shock waves may cause rapid changes
of soil moisture content and soil density which cannot readily be measured by conven-
tional methods. When using the nuclear instruments a film apparatus can be mounted
above the five glow tube decade counters and information on subsurface moisture
and density changes can easily be obtained by determining the number of recorded
counts per minute on the film.

5. CLOSING REMARKS

5.1 Further deoelopment of scientific hydrology


The significance of determining the soil moisture content by neutron logging
for the further development of hydrology as a science can hardly be overestimated.
It is generally recognized that the processes in the non-saturated zone of the soil

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CUMULATIVE CHANGE OF SOIL-MOISTURE
IN DIFFERENT LAYERS

O-SO «I" BELOW SURFACE

5O-9O cm 6ELOW SURFACE

IOO

»O

»o!

40...

9O-UO cm BELOW SURFACE


I MAY I JUNE :

Fig. 2 — Changes of soil moisture content of different layers for a grass cover,
beets and winterrye in 1962.
The beets were sown in the beginning of May.
The rye was reaped in the beginning of August.
For the determination of the total water consumption of the plants the amounts
of soil moisture should be increased by a part of the precipitation which has been
consumed by the plants (precipitation — interception — drainage).

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form the most intricate phase of the hydrologie cycle and that no further substantial
progress in hydrology can be expected without better integration of this phase in the
basic physical and mathematical concepts. The neutron logging allows to closely
follow the actual soil moisture variations in a vertical in the soil when rain water is
infiltrating, replenishing the soil moisture and recharging the ground water. The
downward movement of the "wetting-front" can be observed. In combination with
the mathematical approach, the most difficult phase of the hydrologie cycle can now
adequately be studied.

5.2 Use of neutron in logging flood forecasting


One of the difficulties in flood forecasting is the determination of the "losses",
i.e. that portion of rainfall which will not contribute to surface runoff. In many cases
the bulk of the losses is constituted by soil moisture deficiency. The day-by-day deter-
mination of the soil moisture deficiency in natural river basins of any considerable
size is a difficult matter. To solve this problem empirical relationships may be establish-
ed between this deficiency and antecedent rainfall, time of the year, duration of rain,
etc. This requires, however, many data.
The procedure can be considerably improved and simplified if the soil moisture
deficiency could actually be measured. The usual determination by weight is not
feasible since this would require an enormous amount of samples to be analyzed.
Neutron logging can solve the problem. In a number of key-stations in the river basins
e.g. in the hydrometeorological stations, neutron logging is carried out at regular
intervals as routine observations. A relationship can be established between the read-
ings in these key-stations and the actual soil moisture deficiency of the river basin of
sufficient accuracy to be used in forecasting major floods.

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