29 Nov 2022
 | 29 Nov 2022

Root zone soil moisture in over 25 % of global land permanently beyond pre-industrial variability as early as 2050

En Ning Lai, Lan Wang-Erlandsson, Vili Virkki, Miina Porkka, and Ruud J. van der Ent

Abstract. Root-zone soil moisture is a key variable representing water cycle dynamics that strongly interacts with ecohydrological, atmospheric, and biogeochemical processes. Recently, it was proposed as the control variable for the green water planetary boundary, suggesting that widespread and considerable deviations from baseline variability now predispose destabilization of Earth System functions critical to an agriculture-based civilisation. However, the global extent and severity of root-zone soil moisture changes under future scenarios remains to be scrutinized. Here, we analyzed root-zone soil moisture departures from the pre-industrial climate variability for a multi-model ensemble of 14 Earth System Models (ESMs) in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6) in four climate scenarios as defined by the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSP), SSP1-2.6, SSP2-4.5, SSP3-7.0, and SSP5-8.5, between 2021 and 2100. The analyses were done for 43 ice-free climate reference regions used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).We defined ‘permanent departures’ when a region’s soil moisture exits the regional variability envelope of the pre-industrial climate and does not fall back into the range covered by the baseline envelope until 2100. Permanent dry departures (i.e. lower soil moisture than pre-industrial variability) were found to be most pronounced in Central America, southern Africa, the Mediterranean region, and most of South America, whereas permanent wet departures are most pronounced in southeastern South America, northern Africa, and southern Asia. In the Mediterranean region, permanent departure may have already happened according to some models. By 2100, there is permanent departure in the Mediterranean in 60 % of the ESMs in SSP1-2.6, the most mitigated situation, and 100 % in SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5, the medium-high and worst-case scenarios. North-Eastern Africa is projected to experience permanent departures in 50 % of the ESMs under SSP1-2.6, and 86 % under SSP5-8.5. The percentage of ice-free land area with departures increases in all SSP scenarios as time goes by.Wet departure are more widespread than dry departures throughout the studied timeframe, except in SSP1-2.6. In most regions, the severity of the departures increases with the severity of global warming. In 2050, permanent departures (ensemble median) occur in 10 % of global ice-free land areas in SSP1-2.6, and in 25 % in SSP3-7.0. By the end of the 21st century, the occurrence of permanent departures in SSP1-2.6 increases to 34 %, and in SSP3-7.0, 45 %. Our findings underscore the importance of mitigation to avoid further degrading the Earth System functions upheld by soil moisture.

En Ning Lai et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-971', Anonymous Referee #1, 02 Jan 2023
  • RC2: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-971', Wolfgang Wagner, 22 Feb 2023
    • AC2: 'Reply on RC2', Ruud van der Ent, 17 Apr 2023
  • RC3: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-971', Anonymous Referee #3, 20 Mar 2023
    • AC3: 'Reply on RC3', Ruud van der Ent, 17 Apr 2023

En Ning Lai et al.

Model code and software

Departure of soil moisture content from the Preindustrial Baseline En Ning Lai

En Ning Lai et al.


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Short summary
Root-zone soil moisture, important for ecosystems and agriculture, is now substantially modified by human activities and global warming. We studied how it changes in possible future climates (2021–2100). Based on the output of climate models, we can say that the Mediterranean, South Africa, parts of North and South America will become permanently drier, while Northern Africa and Southern Asia become wetter. This occurs even under mitigation scenarios, making climate adaptation imperative.