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Combined influence of soil moisture and atmospheric evaporative demand is important for accurately predicting US maize yields


Understanding the response of agriculture to heat and moisture stress is essential to adapt food systems under climate change. Although evidence of crop yield loss with extreme temperature is abundant, disentangling the roles of temperature and moisture in determining yield has proved challenging, largely due to limited soil moisture data and the tight coupling between moisture and temperature at the land surface. Here, using well-resolved observations of soil moisture from the recently launched Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite, we quantify the contribution of imbalances between atmospheric evaporative demand and soil moisture to maize yield damage in the US Midwest. We show that retrospective yield predictions based on the interactions between atmospheric demand and soil moisture significantly outperform those using temperature and precipitation singly or together. The importance of accounting for this water balance is highlighted by the fact that climate simulations uniformly predict increases in atmospheric demand during the growing season but the trend in root-zone soil moisture varies between models, with some models indicating that yield damages associated with increased evaporative demand are moderated by increased water supply. A damage estimate conditioned only on simulated changes in atmospheric demand, as opposed to also accounting for changes in soil moisture, would erroneously indicate approximately twice the damage. This research demonstrates that more accurate predictions of maize yield can be achieved by using soil moisture data and indicates that accurate estimates of how climate change will influence crop yields require explicitly accounting for variations in water availability.

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Fig. 1: Yield sensitivity to VPD.
Fig. 2: Moisture supply and demand drive yield.
Fig. 3: Maize yield response to moisture supply and demand in present and future climates.

Data availability

SMAP science data are available at the NASA National Snow and Ice Data Center Distributed Active Archive Center ( Meteorological data are available at the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University ( Maize yield data are available at the US Department of Agriculture/National Agriculture Statistics service ( Observations from the US-Ne3 eddy covariance site are available at the AmeriFlux (soil moisture; and FLUXNET2015 (VPD, GPP and solar radiation; data repositories.


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We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Supplementary Table 2) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP, the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. We also acknowledge the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science for funding the AmeriFlux data resources, as well as the FLUXNET community, whose data processing and harmonization was carried out by the European Fluxes Database Cluster, the AmeriFlux Management Project and the Fluxdata project of FLUXNET, with the support of the CDIAC and ICOS Ecosystem Thematic Center, and the OzFlux, ChinaFlux and AsiaFlux offices. N.P. acknowledges partial financial support from the Office of Naval Research. A.J.R. acknowledges financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation Planetary Health Fellows programme at Harvard University.

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A.J.R. and P.H. conceived and drafted the manuscript, A.J.R. performed the analysis, and all authors contributed to the writing and interpretation.

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Correspondence to A. J. Rigden.

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Rigden, A.J., Mueller, N.D., Holbrook, N.M. et al. Combined influence of soil moisture and atmospheric evaporative demand is important for accurately predicting US maize yields. Nat Food 1, 127–133 (2020).

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