Surface soil moisture has a direct impact on food security, human health and ecosystem function. It also plays a key role in the climate system, and the development and persistence of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and heatwaves. However, sparse and uneven observations have made it difficult to quantify the global distribution and dynamics of surface soil moisture. Here we introduce a metric of soil moisture memory and use a full year of global observations from NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission to show that surface soil moisture—a storage believed to make up less than 0.001% of the global freshwater budget by volume, and equivalent to an, on average, 8-mm thin layer of water covering all land surfaces—plays a significant role in the water cycle. Specifically, we find that surface soil moisture retains a median 14% of precipitation falling on land after three days. Furthermore, the retained fraction of the surface soil moisture storage after three days is highest over arid regions, and in regions where drainage to groundwater storage is lowest. We conclude that lower groundwater storage in these regions is due not only to lower precipitation, but also to the complex partitioning of the water cycle by the surface soil moisture storage layer at the land surface.
At a glance
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