On the use of spatially discrete data to compute energy and mass balance
In many practical applications the state of field soils is monitored by recording the evolution of temperature and soil moisture at discrete depths. We theoretically investigate the systematic errors that arise when mass and energy balances are computed directly from these measurements. We show that, even with no measurement or model errors, large residuals might result when finite difference approximations are used to compute fluxes and storage term. To calculate the limits set by the use of spatially discrete measurements on the accuracy of balance closure, we derive an analytical solution to estimate the residual on the basis of the two key parameters: the penetration depth and the distance between the measurements. When the thickness of the control layer for which the balance is computed is comparable to the penetration depth of the forcing (which depends on the thermal diffusivity and on the forcing period) large residuals arise. The residual is also very sensitive to the distance between the measurements, which requires accurately controlling the position of the sensors in field experiments. We also demonstrate that, for the same experimental setup, mass residuals are sensitively larger than the energy residuals due to the nonlinearity of the moisture transport equation. Our analysis suggests that a careful assessment of the systematic mass error introduced by the use of spatially discrete data is required before using fluxes and residuals computed directly from field measurements.