Are drought indices and climate data good indicators of ecologically relevant soil moisture dynamics in drylands?

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In this study, we tested components of climatic water balance, including standardized precipitation-evapotranspiration index (SPEI) and SPEI computation lengths, to recreate multi-decadal and periodic soil-moisture patterns across soil profiles at 866 sites in the western United States. Modeling results show that SPEI calculated over the prior 12-months was the most predictive computation length and could recreate changes in moisture availability within the soil profile over longer periods of time and for annual recharge of deeper soil moisture stores. SPEI was slightly less successful with recreating spring surface-soil moisture availability, which is key to dryland ecosystems dominated by winter precipitation. Meteorological drought indices like SPEI are intended to be convenient and generalized indicators of meteorological water deficit. However, the inconsistent ability of SPEI to recreate ecologically relevant patterns of soil moisture at regional scales suggests that process-based models, and the larger data requirements they involve, remain an important tool for dryland ecohydrology.

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