Mapping root zone soil moisture using remotely sensed optical imagery

Christopher A. Scott, Wim G.M. Bastiaanssen, Mobin ud Din Ahmad

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


Field-based soil moisture measurements are cumbersome. Remote sensing techniques based on active or passive microwave data have limitations. This paper presents and validates a new method based on land surface energy balances using remotely sensed optical data (including thermal infrared), which allows field and landscape-scale mapping of soil moisture depth-averaged through the root zone of existing vegetation. Root zone depth can be variable when crops are emerging. The pixel-wise "evaporative fraction" (ratio of latent heat flux to net available energy) is related to volumetric soil moisture through a standard regression curve that is independent of soil and vegetation type. Validation with measured root zone soil moisture in cropped soils in Mexico and Pakistan has a root mean square error of 0.05 cm3 cm-3: the error is less than 0.07 cm3 cm-3 in 90% of cases. Consequently, soil moisture data should be presented in class intervals of 0.05 cm3 cm-3. The utility of this method is demonstrated at the field scale using multitemporal thematic mapper imagery for irrigated areas near Cortazar in Mexico, and for river basin-scale water resources distribution in Pakistan. The potential limitation is the presence of clouds and the time lag between consecutive images with field-scale resolution. With the falling price of optical satellite imagery, this technique should gain wider acceptance with river basin planners, watershed managers, and irrigation and drainage engineers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)326-335
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Irrigation and Drainage Engineering
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)


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