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Vegetation Stress as a Feedback Mechanism in Midlatitude Drought

Paul A. DirmeyerCenter for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies, Calverton, Maryland

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Abstract

An atmospheric general circulation model with land surface properties represented by the Simplified Simple Biosphere Model is used to investigate the effect of soil moisture and vegetation stress on drought in the mid-latitudes. An idealized land-sea distribution with simple topography is used to remove as many external sources of climate variation as possible. The land consists of a single, flat, rectangular continent covered with prairie vegetation and centered on 44°N of an aqua planet. A control integration of 4 years is performed, and several sets of seasonal anomaly integrations are made to test the sensitivity of seasonal climate to low initial (1 April) soil moisture and dormant vegetation like what would occur during a severe drought.

It is found that the inclusion of dormant vegetation during the spring and early summer greatly reduces evapotranspiration by eliminating transpiration. This affects local climate more strongly as summer progresses. Low initial soil moisture, combined with dormant vegetation, leads to a severe drought. The reduction in precipitation is much greater in magnitude than that due to low soil moisture alone, and greater than the sum of the effects computed separately. Although the short-term drought is more severe, the dormancy of the vegetation prevents further depletion of moisture in the root zone of the soil, so soil moisture begins to rebound toward the middle of summer.

Abstract

An atmospheric general circulation model with land surface properties represented by the Simplified Simple Biosphere Model is used to investigate the effect of soil moisture and vegetation stress on drought in the mid-latitudes. An idealized land-sea distribution with simple topography is used to remove as many external sources of climate variation as possible. The land consists of a single, flat, rectangular continent covered with prairie vegetation and centered on 44°N of an aqua planet. A control integration of 4 years is performed, and several sets of seasonal anomaly integrations are made to test the sensitivity of seasonal climate to low initial (1 April) soil moisture and dormant vegetation like what would occur during a severe drought.

It is found that the inclusion of dormant vegetation during the spring and early summer greatly reduces evapotranspiration by eliminating transpiration. This affects local climate more strongly as summer progresses. Low initial soil moisture, combined with dormant vegetation, leads to a severe drought. The reduction in precipitation is much greater in magnitude than that due to low soil moisture alone, and greater than the sum of the effects computed separately. Although the short-term drought is more severe, the dormancy of the vegetation prevents further depletion of moisture in the root zone of the soil, so soil moisture begins to rebound toward the middle of summer.

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