Past studies have shown that accurate soil moisture initialization can contribute significant skill to near-surface air temperature (T2M) forecasts at subseasonal leads. The mechanisms by which soil moisture contributes such skill are examined here with a simple water balance–based model that captures the essence of soil moisture behavior in a state-of-the-art subseasonal-to-seasonal (S2S) forecasting system. The simple model successfully transforms initial soil moisture contents into average “forecast” evapotranspiration (ET) values at 16–30-day lead that agree well, during summer, with the values forecast by the full NASA GEOS S2S system, indicating that soil moisture initialization dominates over forecast meteorological conditions in determining ET fluxes at subseasonal leads. When the simple model’s ET anomalies are interpreted in terms of T2M anomalies, a similar conclusion is reached for T2M: soil moisture initialization explains much (about 50% in the eastern half of the continental United States) of the T2M anomaly values produced by the full GEOS S2S system at 16–30-day lead, and the T2M forecasts produced by the simple model capture about one-half of the skill attained by the full system. The simple model’s framework is particularly conducive to an analysis of uncertainty in forecasts. Drier soils are generally found to induce larger uncertainty in ET (and thus T2M) forecasts, a result linked to the functional form relating ET to soil moisture in the simple model and verified by an analysis of the ensemble spreads within the forecasts produced by the full GEOS S2S system.

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