A soil moisture rainfall feedback mechanism 1. Theory and observations

Title A soil moisture rainfall feedback mechanism 1. Theory and observations
Publication Type Journal Article
Year of Publication 1998
Authors Eltahir EAB
Volume 34
Date Published 1998

This paper presents a hypothesis regarding the fundamental role of soil moisture conditions in land-atmosphere interactions. We propose that wet soil moisture conditions over any large region should be associated with relatively large boundary layer moist static energy, which favors the occurrence of more rainfall. Since soil moisture conditions themselves reflect past occurrence of rainfall, the proposed hypothesis implies a positive feedback mechanism between soil moisture and rainfall. This mechanism is based on considerations of the energy balance at the land-atmosphere boundary, in contrast to similar mechanisms that were proposed in the past and that were based on the concepts of water balance and precipitation recycling. The control of soil moisture on surface albedo and Bowen ratio is the fundamental basis of the proposed soil moisture-rainfall feedback mechanism. The water content in the upper soil layer affects these two important properties of the land surface such that both variables decrease with any increase in the water content of the top soil layer. The direct effect of soil moisture on surface albedo implies that wet soil moisture conditions enhance net solar radiation. The direct effect of soil moisture on Bowen ratio dictates that wet soil moisture conditions would tend to enhance net terrestrial radiation at the surface through cooling of surface temperature, reduction of upwards emissions of terrestrial radiation, and simultaneous increase in atmospheric water vapor content and downwards flux of terrestrial radiation. Thus, under wet soil moisture conditions, both components of net radiation are enhanced, resulting in a larger total flux of heat from the surface into the boundary layer. This total flux represents the sum of the corresponding sensible and latent heat fluxes. Simultaneously, cooling of surface temperature should be associated with a smaller sensible heat flux and a smaller depth of the boundary layer. Whenever these processes occur over a large enough area, the enhanced flux of heat from the surface into the smaller reservoir of boundary layer air should favor a relatively large magnitude of moist static energy per unit mass of the boundary layer air. The dynamics of localized convective storms as well as the dynamics of large-scale atmospheric circulations have been shown to be sensitive to the distribution of boundary layer moist static energy by several previous studies. These theoretical concepts are tested using field observations from Kansas and explored further in a companion paper {[}Zheng and Eltahir, this issue] using a simple numerical model.

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