Land surface models systematically overestimate the intensity, duration and magnitude of seasonal-scale evaporative droughts

A. M. Ukkola*, M. G. De Kauwe, A. J. Pitman, M. J. Best, G. Abramowitz, V. Haverd, M. Decker, N. Haughton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

87 Citations (Scopus)


Land surface models (LSMs) must accurately simulate observed energy and water fluxes during droughts in order to provide reliable estimates of future water resources. We evaluated 8 different LSMs (14 model versions) for simulating evapotranspiration (ET) during periods of evaporative drought (Edrought) across six flux tower sites. Using an empirically defined Edrought threshold (a decline in ET below the observed 15th percentile), we show that LSMs simulated 58 Edrought days per year, on average, across the six sites, ∼3 times as many as the observed 20 d. The simulated Edrought magnitude was ∼8 times greater than observed and twice as intense. Our findings point to systematic biases across LSMs when simulating water and energy fluxes under water-stressed conditions. The overestimation of key Edrought characteristics undermines our confidence in the models' capability in simulating realistic drought responses to climate change and has wider implications for phenomena sensitive to soil moisture, including heat waves.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104012
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 13 Oct 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We acknowledge the contribution of the PLUMBER participants for providing the LSM simulations used in this study. This work used eddy covariance data acquired by the FLUXNET community for the La Thuile FLUXNET release, supported by the following networks: Ameri- Flux (US Department of Energy, Bio- logical and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Carbon Program (DE-FG02-04ER63917 and DE-FG02-04ER63911)), AfriFlux, AsiaFlux, CarboAfrica, CarboEuropeIP, CarboItaly, CarboMont, ChinaFlux, Fluxnet-Canada (supported by CFCAS, NSERC, BIOCAP, Environment Canada, and NRCan), GreenGrass, KoFlux, LBA, NECC, OzFlux, TCOS-Siberia, USCCC. We acknowledge the financial support to the eddy covariance data harmonisation provided by CarboEuropeIP, FAO-GTOS-TCO, iLEAPS, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, National Science Foundation, University of Tuscia, Universit Laval and Environment Canada and US Department of Energy and the database development and technical support from Berkeley Water Center, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Microsoft Research eScience, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, University of California-Berkeley, University of Virginia. The data are available on request from the author

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 IOP Publishing Ltd.


  • evaporative drought
  • evapotranspiration
  • heat waves
  • land surface models


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