The Riseholme Campus of the University of Lincoln has joined the UK’s national network of monitoring stations measuring intergalactic cosmic rays to provide farmers and agri-tech researchers with near real-time data on soil moisture levels.

Grasslands at the campus have been fitted with cutting-edge meteorological and soil monitoring instruments as part of the national Cosmic-ray Soil Moisture Observing System (COSMOS-UK) project.

Led by the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the COSMOS-UK project launched in 2013 and now includes 40 sites stretching from Glensaugh in Scotland to The Lizard in Cornwall, with further installations planned.

Riseholme is the first location in Lincolnshire to be added to the national network of monitoring stations. Once calibrated, the technology will help to inform research by scientists from the University’s Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology (LIAT), as well researchers at other universities and research institutions.

Each COSMOS-UK site is fitted with a cosmic-ray soil moisture sensor which measures high energy sub atomic particles known as ‘fast neutrons’. These naturally-occurring neutrons are generated by cosmic rays when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere from both inside and outside our own Milky Way Galaxy. Other instruments below the soil surface provide point measurements of soil moisture, temperature and heat flux to complement the cosmic-ray measurements. The system can provide accurate, near-real time estimates of soil moisture for an area of up to 12 hectares.

Above the surface, each site is also fitted with an automatic weather station which provides temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind speed and wind direction data. This includes a weighing rain gauge and a radiometer measuring long and short wave, incoming and outgoing radiation.

All instrumentation is designed to operate remotely and return data automatically to the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology at Wallingford, Oxfordshire. Data from each site can be viewed online in near real-time through the CEH COSMOS-UK website.

Professor Simon Pearson, Director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology (LIAT) at the University of Lincoln said: “We are extremely proud and excited to be part of the national network of COSMOS-UK soil moisture monitoring sites. Lincolnshire is responsible for 10 per cent of all agricultural production in England, so it is right that we contribute to this important national project.
“Data derived from these instruments at Riseholme and elsewhere provide near real-time soil moisture data in a way that could transform farming, flood planning and environmental management in the near future. This has the potential to bring great benefits for our region’s farmers. Already researchers are examining how this wealth of data can be used to improve irrigation, manage flood risk and make more accurate crop yield forecasts.”

Dr Jonathan Evans, CEH COSMOS-UK Technical Lead, commented: “CEH are delighted that LIAT have supported the COSMOS-UK network so enthusiastically – it is only with such land owner cooperation that we can cost-effectively install and maintain COSMOS-UK field stations across the UK. Standardised national long-term soil moisture monitoring will help us to better manage water resource demand, particularly in lower rainfall areas in eastern England, to develop new drought indicators and mitigation strategies.”