Global trends and variability in soil moisture and drought characteristics, 1950-2000, from observation-driven simulations of the terrestrial hydrologic cycle

Justin Sheffield, Eric F. Wood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

428 Scopus citations


Global and regional trends in drought for 1950-2000 are analyzed using a soil moisture-based drought index over global terrestrial areas, excluding Greenland and Antarctica. The soil moisture fields are derived from a simulation of the terrestrial hydrologic cycle driven by a hybrid reanalysis-observation forcing dataset. Drought is described in terms of various statistics that summarize drought duration, intensity, and severity. There is an overall small wetting trend in global soil moisture, forced by increasing precipitation, which is weighted by positive soil moisture trends over the Western Hemisphere and especially in North America. Regional variation is nevertheless apparent, and significant drying over West Africa, as driven by decreasing Sahel precipitation, stands out. Elsewhere, Europe appears to have not experienced significant changes in soil moisture, a trait shared by Southeast and southern Asia. Trends in drought duration, intensity, and severity are predominantly decreasing, but statistically significant changes are limited in areal extent, of the order of 1.0%-7.0% globally, depending on the variable and drought threshold, and are generally less than 10% of continental areas. Concurrent changes in drought spatial extent are evident, with a global decreasing trend of between -0.021% and -0.035% yr-1. Regionally, drought spatial extent over Africa has increased and is dominated by large increases over West Africa. Northern and East Asia show positive trends, and central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau show decreasing trends. In South Asia all trends are insignificant. Drought extent over Australia has decreased. Over the Americas, trends are uniformly negative and mostly significant. Within the long-term trends there are considerable interannual and decadal variations in soil moisture and drought characteristics for most regions, which impact the robustness of the trends. Analysis of detrended and smoothed soil moisture time series reveals that the leading modes of variability are associated with sea surface temperatures, primarily in the equatorial Pacific and secondarily in the North Atlantic. Despite the overall wetting trend there is a switch since the 1970s to a drying trend, globally and in many regions, especially in high northern latitudes. This is shown to be caused, in part, by concurrent increasing temperatures. Although drought is driven primarily by variability in precipitation, projected continuation of temperature increases during the twenty-first century indicate the potential for enhanced drought occurrence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)432-458
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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