Dry-to-Wet Soil Gradients Enhance Convection and Rainfall over Subtropical South America

Divyansh Chug, Francina Dominguez, Christopher M. Taylor, Cornelia Klein, Stephen W. Nesbitt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Soil moisture–precipitation (SM–PPT) feedbacks at the mesoscale represent a major challenge for numerical weather prediction, especially for subtropical regions that exhibit large variability in surface SM. How does surface heterogeneity, specifically mesoscale gradients in SM and land surface temperature (LST), affect convective initiation (CI) over South America? Using satellite data, we track nascent, daytime convective clouds and quantify the underlying antecedent (morning) surface heterogeneity. We find that convection initiates preferentially on the dry side of strong SM/LST boundaries with spatial scales of tens of kilometers. The strongest alongwind gradients in LST anomalies at 30-km length scale underlying the CI location occur during weak background low-level wind (<2.5 m s-1), high convective available potential energy (>1500 J kg-1), and low convective inhibition (<250 J kg-1) over sparse vegetation. At 100-km scale, strong gradients occur at the CI location during convectively unfavorable conditions and strong background flow. The location of PPT is strongly sensitive to the strength of the background flow. The wind profile during weak background flow inhibits propagation of convection away from the dry regions leading to negative SM–PPT feedback whereas strong background flow is related to longer life cycle and rainfall hundreds of kilometers away from the CI location. Thus, the sign of the SM–PPT feedback is dependent on the background flow. This work presents the first observational evidence that CI over subtropical South America is associated with dry soil patches on the order of tens of kilometers. Convection-permitting numerical weather prediction models need to be examined for accurately capturing the effect of SM heterogeneity in initiating convection over such semiarid regions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1563-1581
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Hydrometeorology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2023


  • Atmosphere
  • Deep convection
  • Satellite observations
  • Soil moisture
  • South America

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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