Representation of terrestrial hydrology and large-scale drought of the continental united states from the North American Regional Reanalysis

Justin Sheffield, Ben Livneh, Eric F. Wood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


The North American Regional Reanalysis (NARR) is a state-of-the-art land-atmosphere reanalysis product that provides improved representation of the terrestrial hydrologic cycle compared to previous global reanalyses, having the potential to provide an enhanced picture of hydrologic extremes such as floods and droughts and their driving mechanisms. This is partly because of the novel assimilation of observed precipitation, state-of-the-art land surface scheme, and higher spatial resolution. NARR is evaluated in terms of the terrestrial water budget and its depiction of drought at monthly to annual time scales against two offline land surface model [Noah v2.7.1 and Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC)] simulations and observation-based runoff estimates over the continental United States for 1979-2003. An earlier version of the Noah model forms the land component ofNARRand so the offline simulation provides an opportunity to diagnoseNARR land surface variables independently of atmospheric feedbacks. The VIC model has been calibrated against measured streamflow and so provides a reasonable estimate of large-scale evapotranspiration. Despite similar precipitation, there are large differences in the partitioning of precipitation into evapotranspiration and runoff. Relative to VIC, NARR and Noah annual evapotranspiration is biased high by 28% and 24%, respectively, and the runoff ratios are 50% and 40% lower. This is confirmed by comparison with observationbased runoff estimates from 1130 small, relatively unmanaged basins across the continental United States. The overestimation of evapotranspiration by NARR is largely attributed to the evapotranspiration component of the Noah model, whereas other factors such as atmospheric forcings or biases induced by precipitation assimilation into NARR play only a minor role. A combination of differences in the parameterization of evapotranspiration and in particular low stomatal resistance values in NARR, the seasonality of vegetation characteristics, the near-surface radiation and meteorology, and the representation of soil moisture dynamics, including high infiltration rates and the relative coupling of soil moisture with baseflow in NARR, are responsible for the differences in the water budgets. Large-scale drought as quantified by soil moisture percentiles covaries closely over the continental United States between the three datasets, despite large differences in the seasonal water budgets. However, there are large regional differences, especially in the eastern United States where the VIC model shows higher variability in drought dynamics. This is mostly due to increased frequency of completely dry conditions in NARR that result from differences in soil depth, higher evapotranspiration, early snowmelt, and early peak runoff. In the western United States, differences in the precipitation forcing contribute to large discrepancies between NARR and Noah/VIC simulations in the representation of the early 2000s drought.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)856-876
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Hydrometeorology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


  • Drought
  • Evapotranspiration
  • Hydrologic cycle
  • Land surface model
  • Model evaluation/performance
  • North America


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