Soil conditions underpin landscapes, forming part of the foundation of an ecosystem. Measuring changing in soil properties over the longterm can indicate not only soil health, but overall ecosystem health, and inform conservation land management practises.
Climate change is expected to bring about major changes to the function of soils (Farrell et al 2018).
In Australia, projected increases in the number of hot days and hot spells, decreases in rainfall, and longer, more frequent droughts means forewarning of changing soil conditions will also be key to adapting conservation land management practices.
We’re working with soil experts from Monash University’s School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment and conservation land managers, Bush Heritage Australia, to develop a longterm remote soil monitoring system that measures soil moisture, CO2, pH, temperature and salinity in order to develop a baseline of soil data.
Understanding the trajectory of soil conditions over time will help track the impact of conservation management, providing trigger points for stressed soils and ecosystems that can initiate remedial action, particularly ahead of predicted extreme events.
Bush Heritage Australia is an Australian not-for-profit organisation that buys and regenerates land. The organisation manages over 11.2 million hectares of nationally significant ecosystems in partnership with Traditional Owners, implementing a range of conservation science and management practises. These include ‘right-way’ science using the Open Standard for the Practice of Conservation to plan and implement management practises and ecological monitoring. Their management practises include fire management, erosion control, restoring waterways, controlling grazing pressure and managing feral animals.
Long term soil monitoring is not a widely established practise in conservation land management, and there’s little to no historical data documenting the changes in soil properties over time.
A major obstacle conservation land managers face in monitoring soil is the huge amount of land under their care, the limited number of ecologists and staff, and the expense of existing soil monitoring systems and analysis methods.
Traditional techniques in which soil samples are manually collected from the field and sent to a lab for analysis provide a lot of accuracy however are time consuming and expensive so it’s done every couple of years, or sometimes not at all.
Sensors for soil moisture, soil temperature and CO2 are commercially available, however they’re mostly designed for the agricultural, horticultural and aquacultural industries (in the case of CO2 sensors). The devices usually come as single purpose units, have largely been developed using proprietary software and are expensive for conservation organisations.
We were approached to develop a system for a thesis project for Monash Master student, Luke Richards, who was being supervised by Dr. Vanessa Wong. The thesis explored using open source technology to monitor soil in real time. BaseLogger collected soil moisture (volumetric water content) at three depths, C02, soil temperature and pH over a four-week pilot at BHA’s Nardoo Hills reserve and Parks Victoria’s Wychitella Conservation Nature Reserve.
Once the thesis pilot was underway, we switched gears and refocussed on continuing to develop the full remote monitoring system, BaseLiner.
Full Data Pipeline
The full data pipeline consists of sensor nodes that send data and system diagnostics via LoRa to a gateway device. The gateway then sends the data to the internet via 3G, 4G, NB-IoT or satellite, depending on the available communications on the site. Once the data hits the internet, it goes into a database with an API and is displayed on a website or can be integrated into a 3rd party backend.
Australia is a big country, with patchy cell coverage. Some BHA reserves have cell coverage, and some don’t.
Having an interchangeable gateway with different communications protocols means the system is more modular, and BHA can deploy devices and collect consistent data and system diagnostics across all their reserves.
System diagnostics are important because battery levels, skipped transmissions and other performance metrics can be remotely monitored so damaged devices can be replaced quickly.
Data Accuracy and Building Data Literacy
Concurrently to developing the data pipeline, we’re working with Dr. Vanessa Wong and her lab students from Monash University, to explore the accuracy of lower cost ‘off-the-shelf’ sensors, how accurate they need to be to gather useful data, and how can we interpret the data to understand the impact conservation management practises.
This involves designing lab experiments and equipment to look at how accurate a particular sensor is in specific soil environments; what happens to the readings if we add different management practices to the soil, and what landscape factors affect the readings.
Building this data literacy is critical in making the system useful.
We’re excited about this project, and helping to build a repository of knowledge that can help heal the soil and land we’re all so dependent on. Now that things are opening up in Australia, we’re excited to get out into the field and start testing and piloting! Stay tuned for updates.