Potential caveats in land surface model evaluations using the US drought monitor: Roles of base periods and drought indicators

Hailan Wang, Li Xu, Mimi Hughes, Muthuvel Chelliah, David G. Dewitt, Brian A. Fuchs, Darren L. Jackson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The US drought monitor (USDM) has been widely used as an observational reference for evaluating land surface model (LSM) simulation of drought. This study investigates potential caveats in such evaluation when the USDM and LSMs use different base periods and drought indices to identify drought. The retrospective national water model (NWM) v2.0 simulation (1993-2018) was used to exemplify the evaluation, supplemented by North American land data assimilation system phase 2 (NLDAS-2). Over their common period (2000-2018), in distinct contrast with the USDM which shows high drought occurrence (>50%) in the western half of the continental US (CONUS) and the southeastern US with low occurrence (<30%) elsewhere, the NWM and NLDAS-2 based on soil moisture percentiles (SMPs) consistently show higher drought occurrence (30%-40%) in the central and southeastern US than the rest of the CONUS. Much of the differences between the LSMs and USDM, particularly the strong LSM underestimation of drought occurrence in the western and southeastern US, are not attributed to the LSM deficiencies, but rather the lack of long-term drought in the LSM simulations due to their relatively short lengths. Specifically, the USDM integrates drought indices with century-long periods of record, which enables it to capture both short-term (<6 months) drought and long-term (6 months) drought, whereas the relatively short retrospective simulations of the LSMs allows them to adequately capture short-term drought but not long-term drought. In addition, the USDM integrates many drought indices whereas the NWM results are solely based on the SMP, further adding to the inconsistency. The high occurrence of long-term drought in the western and southeastern US in the USDM is further found to be driven collectively by the post-2000 long-term warm sea surface temperature (SST) trend, cold Pacific decadal oscillation and warm Atlantic multi-decadal oscillation, all of which are typical leading patterns of global SST variability that can induce drought conditions in the western, central, and southeastern US. Our findings highlight the effects of the above caveats and suggest that LSM evaluation should stay qualitative when the caveats are considerable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number014011
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • US drought monitor
  • drought characteristics
  • land surface model evaluation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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