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The global distribution and dynamics of surface soil moisture

Nature Geoscience volume 10, pages 100104 (2017) | Download Citation

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

K.A.M. is funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a Ziff Environmental Fellowship from Harvard University’s Center for the Environment. The parts of this work performed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology were conducted under contracts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The authors thank S. Seneviratne for comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript.

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Affiliations

  1. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Kaighin A. McColl
    • , Seyed Hamed Alemohammad
    • , Ruzbeh Akbar
    • , Alexandra G. Konings
    •  & Dara Entekhabi
  2. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Kaighin A. McColl
  3. Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Alexandra G. Konings
  4. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109, USA

    • Simon Yueh
  5. Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Dara Entekhabi

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Contributions

K.A.M. wrote the manuscript. R.A., K.A.M. and S.H.A. conducted analyses and produced figures. D.E. conceived and led the project, and developed the ‘stored precipitation fraction’ in discussions with K.A.M., S.H.A. and A.G.K. S.Y. contributed to interpretation of the results. All authors discussed and edited drafts of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dara Entekhabi.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2868

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