Soil Moisture Conditions over Southeast Texas Prior to Hurricane Harvey

As much-anticipated Hurricane Harvey approaches the southern and eastern coast of Texas today, it is worth examining the pre-existing soil moisture over the region to understand the capacity of the land surface to absorb the upcoming rainfall.  Granted, the amount of rainfall simulated by numerical guidance is off-the-charts high (e.g., today’s 0600 UTC initialized NAM model [Fig. 1] shows 84-hour maximum accumulated rainfall of over 60″ between Corpus Christie and Houston!!).  Thus, extreme flooding is anticipated, regardless of the amount that can be absorbed by the soils.

Fig1_NAMFLT_prec_precacc_084

Figure 1.  The NCEP/NAM model 84-hour forecast of total accumulated precipitation (inches) over Southeastern Texas, from the simulation initialized at 0600 UTC 25 August 2017 [image courtesy of College of DuPage forecast page].

SPoRT manages a real-time simulation of the NASA Land Information System (hereafter, “SPoRT-LIS“), running over the Continental U.S. at ~3-km grid resolution.  The SPoRT-LIS product is a Noah land surface model climatological and real-time simulation over 4 model soil layers (0-10, 10-40, 40-100, and 100-200 cm).  The climatological simulation spans 1981-2013 and forms the basis for daily-updated total-column soil moisture percentiles (forthcoming in Fig. 3), in order to place current soil moisture values into historical context.  For real-time output, the Noah simulation is regularly updated four times per day as an extension of the long-term climatology simulation.  It includes NOAA/NESDIS daily global VIIRS Green Vegetation Fraction data, and the real-time SPoRT-LIS component also incorporates quantitative precipitation estimates (QPE) from the Multi-Radar Multi-Sensor (MRMS) gauge-corrected radar product.  The climatological SPoRT-LIS is based exclusively on atmospheric analysis input from the NOAA/NASA North American Land Data Assimilation System – version 2.

Relative Soil Moisture output from the SPoRT-LIS over the 0-100 cm layer is shown in Fig. 2 over Southeastern Texas and Louisiana at 1200 UTC this morning.  A marked gradient between very dry soils to the west and moist soils to the east occurs in the vicinity of the greater Houston metropolitan area.  The soils in the region bounded by Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston (areas forecast to have the greatest rainfall from Hurricane Harvey) are extremely dry prior to Harvey’s landfall.  This dryness will help to some extent in absorbing the initial rainfall from Hurricane Harvey.  But with such excessive rainfall being forecast over a prolonged time period (3-5+ days), it won’t be long before the upper portions of the soil column saturates and widespread areal flooding occurs.  In addition, the high forecast rainfall rates could easily result in flash flooding (despite prevailing soil dryness), especially further inland where terrain plays a more important role in runoff and flash flooding.

The total column relative soil moisture percentile from 24 August shows that historically-speaking, the soil moisture is slightly drier than normal, particularly along the coastal plain between Corpus Christi and Houston (Fig. 3).  In this corridor, the soil moisture is generally between the 10th and 30th percentile compared to the 1981-2013 climatological distribution for 24 August.

Fig2_rsoim0-100_20170825_12z_tx_cityLabels

Figure 2.  SPoRT-LIS relative soil moisture (RSM) distribution in the 0-1 meter layer across Southeastern Texas and Louisiana, valid 1200 UTC 25 August 2017.  RSM values of 0% represent wilting (vegetation cannot extract moisture from soil) and 100% represents saturation (subsequent rainfall becomes runoff).

Fig3_rsm02percent_20170824_12z_tx

Figure 3.  Total column (0-2 m) relative soil moisture percentile valid 24 Aug 2017, as compared to all 24 August soil moisture values from a 33-year climatological simulation of the SPoRT-LIS.

Finally, an hourly animation of the 1-day changes in 0-10 cm (top model layer) relative soil moisture show that the near-surface soils are quickly moistening between Corpus Christi and Houston, as the initial rainbands of Hurricane Harvey began impacting the coastal plain this morning.  As the soils continue to moisten rapidly from the top-down, subsequent rainfall will quickly lead to runoff and flooding.

Fig4_rsoim0-10diff1_20170825_anim

Figure 4.  Hourly animation of 1-day change in top-layer (0-10 cm) relative soil moisture, for the time period spanning 0000-1400 UTC 25 August 2017.  Each hourly image is a simple difference in 0-10 cm relative soil moisture between the current and previous day at the same valid hour.  Line contours depict one-hour QPE from the MRMS product, as input to the real-time SPoRT-LIS.

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