Probabilistic estimation of depth-resolved profiles of soil thermal diffusivity from temperature time series

Abstract. Improving the quantification of soil thermal and physical properties is key to achieving a better understanding and prediction of soil hydro-biogeochemical processes and their responses to changes in atmospheric forcing. Obtaining such information at numerous locations and/or over time with conventional soil sampling is challenging. The increasing availability of low-cost, vertically resolved temperature sensor arrays offers promise for improving the estimation of soil thermal properties from temperature time series, and the possible indirect estimation of physical properties. Still, the reliability and limitations of such an approach need to be assessed. In the present study, we develop a parameter estimation approach based on a combination of thermal modeling, sliding time windows, Bayesian inference, and Markov chain Monte Carlo simulation to estimate thermal diffusivity and its uncertainty over time, at numerous locations and at an unprecedented vertical spatial resolution (i.e., down to 5 to 10 cm vertical resolution) from soil temperature time series. We provide the necessary framework to assess under which environmental conditions (soil temperature gradient, fluctuations, and trend), temperature sensor characteristics (bias and level of noise), and deployment geometries (sensor number and position) soil thermal diffusivity can be reliably inferred. We validate the method with synthetic experiments and field studies. The synthetic experiments show that in the presence of median diurnal fluctuations ≥ 1.5 ∘C at 5 cm below the ground surface, temperature gradients > 2 ∘C m−1, and a sliding time window of at least 4 d the proposed method provides reliable depth-resolved thermal diffusivity estimates with percentage errors ≤ 10 % and posterior relative standard deviations ≤ 5 % up to 1 m depth. Reliable thermal diffusivity under such environmental conditions also requires temperature sensors to be spaced precisely (with accuracy to a few millimeters), with a level of noise ≤ 0.02 ∘C, and with a bias defined by a standard deviation ≤ 0.01 ∘C. Finally, the application of the developed approach to field data indicates significant repeatability in results and similarity with independent measurements, as well as promise in using a sliding time window to estimate temporal changes in soil thermal diffusivity, as needed to potentially capture changes in bulk density or water content.
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Earth Surface Dynamics
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