Using Smoke Injection in Drains to Identify Potential Preferential Pathways in a Drained Arable Field

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Marie Habekost Nielsen, Carsten T. Petersen and Søren Hansen, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Macropores forming a continuous pathway between the soil surface and subsurface drains favour the transport of many contaminants from agricultural fields to surface waters. The smoke injection method presented by Shipitalo and Gibbs (2000) used for demonstrating and quantifying such pathways has been further developed and used on a drained Danish sandy loam. In order to identify the preferential pathways to drains, smoke was injected in three 1.15 m deep tile drains (total drain length 93 m), and smoke emitting macropores (SEMP) at the soil surface were counted and characterized as producing either strong or weak plumes compared to reference plumes from 3 and 6 mm wide tubes. In the two situations investigated in the present study – an early spring and an autumn situation, smoke only penetrated the soil surface layer via earthworm burrows located in a 1.0 m wide belt directly above the drain lines. However, it is known from previous studies that desiccation fractures in a dry summer situation also can contribute to the smoke pattern. The distance between SEMP measured along the drain lines was on average 0.46 m whereas the average spacing between SEMP with strong plumes was 2.3 m. Ponded water was applied in 6 cm wide rings placed above 52 burrows including 17 reference burrows which did not emit smoke. Thirteen pathways in the soil were examined using dye tracer and profile excavation. SEMP with strong plumes marked the entrance of highly efficient transport pathways conducting surface applied water and dye tracer into the drain. However, no single burrow was traced all the way from the surface into the drain, the dye patterns branched off in a network of other macropores. Water infiltration rates were significantly higher (P < 0.05) in SEMP with strong plumes (average rate: 247 mL min-1 n = 19) compared to SEMP with weak plumes (average rate: 87 mL min-1 n = 16) and no plumes (average rate: 56 mL min-1 n = 17). The results suggest that the smoke injection method is useful for identification of potentially efficient pathways for surface applied contaminants to drains and surface waters, pathways being associated primarily with unevenly distributed SEMP producing strong smoke plumes.