Moisture pulse-reserve in the soil-plant continuum observed across biomes


The degree to which individual pulses of available water drive plant activity across diverse biomes and climates is not well understood. It has previously only been investigated in a few dryland locations. Here, plant water uptake following pulses of surface soil moisture, an indicator for the pulse–reserve hypothesis, is investigated across South America, Africa and Australia with satellite-based estimates of surface soil and canopy water content. Our findings show that this behaviour is widespread: occurring over half of the vegetated landscapes. We estimate spatially varying soil moisture thresholds at which plant water uptake ceases, noting dependence on soil texture and proximity to the wilting point. The soil type and biome-dependent soil moisture threshold and the plant soil water uptake patterns at the scale of Earth system models allow a unique opportunity to test and improve model parameterization of vegetation function under water limitation.

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Fig. 1: Plant–soil water relationship at an example location (9.1° N, 27.2° E; South Sudan).
Fig. 2: Biome-dependent plant–soil water relations during SM drydowns.
Fig. 3: Estimated soil moisture and matric potential thresholds below which plants lose water.
Fig. 4: Responsiveness of vegetation to pulses of available soil water.

Data availability

SMAP L1C brightness temperature and ancillary datasets are freely available on National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) ( IGBP land-cover classifications are freely available through NASA ( MODIS tree-cover fraction is freely available through NASA ( The GPM Version 5 IMERG precipitation product is freely available through NASA ( Responsiveness and soil moisture threshold metrics are available at MT-DCA SM and τ retrievals are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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Massachusetts Institute of Technology contributors were supported under contract with NASA. K.A.M. was funded by a Ziff Environmental Fellowship from Harvard University’s Center for the Environment. A.G.K. was supported by NASA Terrestrial Ecology award no. 80NSSC18K0715 through the New Investigator programme.

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A.F.F. and D.E. conducted the analysis. A.F.F. wrote the manuscript. D.E. conceived and led the project. D.J.S.G., A.G.K., K.A.M., R.A. and G.D.S. contributed to interpretations of results as well as revisions to various versions of the analyses, figures and manuscripts.

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Correspondence to Andrew F. Feldman.

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Feldman, A.F., Short Gianotti, D.J., Konings, A.G. et al. Moisture pulse-reserve in the soil-plant continuum observed across biomes. Nature Plants 4, 1026–1033 (2018).

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