Preferential states in soil moisture and climate dynamics

Paolo D'Odorico, Amilcare Porporato
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2004 June 15, 101 (24): 8848-51
Summer precipitation in continental midlatitude regions is significantly contributed by local recycling, i.e., by moisture returning to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration from the same region. On the other hand, reduced soil moisture availability may limit evapotranspiration rates with effects on the planetary boundary layer dynamics through the partitioning between sensible and latent heat fluxes. Thus, a dependence may exist between precipitation and antecedent soil moisture conditions. Here we provide theoretical and experimental evidence in support of the hypothesis that in continental regions summer soil moisture anomalies affect the probability of occurrence of subsequent precipitation. Owing to these feedbacks, two preferential states may arise in summer soil moisture dynamics, which thus tend to remain locked either in a "dry" or a "wet" state, whereas intermediate conditions have low probability of occurrence. In this manner, such land-atmosphere interactions would explain the possible persistence of summer droughts sustained by positive feedbacks in response to initial (spring) surface moisture anomalies.

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