Optimizing Drought Assessment for Soil Moisture Deficits

Zachary H. Hoylman, Zachary Holden, R. Kyle Bocinsky, David Ketchum, Alan Swanson, Kelsey Jencso

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Accurate drought assessments are critical for mitigating the deleterious impacts of water scarcity on communities across the world. In many regions, deficits in soil moisture represent a key driver of drought conditions. However, relationships between soil moisture and widely used drought indicators have not been thoroughly evaluated. In addition, there has not been an in-depth assessment of the accuracy of operational soil moisture models used for drought monitoring. Here, we used 2,405 observed time series of soil moisture from 637 long-term monitoring stations across the conterminous United States to test the ability of meteorological drought indices and soil moisture models to accurately characterize soil moisture drought. The optimal timescales for meteorological drought indices varied substantially by depth, but were ∼30 days for depth averaged conditions; progressively longer timescales (∼10–80 days) represent progressively deeper soil moisture (2–36 in.). However, soil moisture models (including Short-term Prediction Research and Transition Center, Soil Moisture Active Passive L4, and Topofire) significantly outperformed the meteorological drought indices for predicting standardized soil moisture anomalies and drought conditions. Additionally, soil moisture models represent near instantaneous conditions, implicitly aggregating antecedent data thereby eliminating the need for timescales, providing a more effective and convenient method for soil moisture drought monitoring. We conclude that soil moisture models provide a straightforward and favorable alternative to meteorological drought indices that better characterize soil moisture drought.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2023WR036087
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2024


  • drought
  • drought assessment
  • drought metric
  • optimize
  • soil moisture


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