Training machine learning with physics-based simulations to predict 2D soil moisture fields in a changing climate

Elena Leonarduzzi, Hoang Tran, Vineet Bansal, Robert B. Hull, Luis De la Fuente, Lindsay A. Bearup, Peter Melchior, Laura E. Condon, Reed M. Maxwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The water content in the soil regulates exchanges between soil and atmosphere, impacts plant livelihood, and determines the antecedent condition for several natural hazards. Accurate soil moisture estimates are key to applications such as natural hazard prediction, agriculture, and water management. We explore how to best predict soil moisture at a high resolution in the context of a changing climate. Physics-based hydrological models are promising as they provide distributed soil moisture estimates and allow prediction outside the range of prior observations. This is particularly important considering that the climate is changing, and the available historical records are often too short to capture extreme events. Unfortunately, these models are extremely computationally expensive, which makes their use challenging, especially when dealing with strong uncertainties. These characteristics make them complementary to machine learning approaches, which rely on training data quality/quantity but are typically computationally efficient. We first demonstrate the ability of Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) to reproduce soil moisture fields simulated by the hydrological model ParFlow-CLM. Then, we show how these two approaches can be successfully combined to predict future droughts not seen in the historical timeseries. We do this by generating additional ParFlow-CLM simulations with altered forcing mimicking future drought scenarios. Comparing the performance of CNN models trained on historical forcing and CNN models trained also on simulations with altered forcing reveals the potential of combining these two approaches. The CNN can not only reproduce the moisture response to a given forcing but also learn and predict the impact of altered forcing. Given the uncertainties in projected climate change, we can create a limited number of representative ParFlow-CLM simulations (ca. 25 min/water year on 9 CPUs for our case study), train our CNNs, and use them to efficiently (seconds/water-year on 1 CPU) predict additional water years/scenarios and improve our understanding of future drought potential. This framework allows users to explore scenarios beyond past observation and tailor the training data to their application of interest (e.g., wet conditions for flooding, dry conditions for drought, etc…). With the trained ML model they can rely on high resolution soil moisture estimates and explore the impact of uncertainties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number927113
JournalFrontiers in Water
StatePublished - Oct 11 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


  • 2D soil moisture field
  • ParFlow-CLM
  • convolutional neural networks
  • machine learning
  • meteorological forcing scenarios
  • physics-based hydrological model


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