A key aspect of the land surface response to the atmosphere is how quickly it dries after a rainfall event. It is key because it will determine the intensity and speed of the propagation of drought and also affects the atmospheric state through changes in the surface heat exchanges. Here, we test the theory that this response can be studied as an inherent property of the land surface that is unchanging over time unless the above- and below-ground structures change. This is important as a drydown metric can be used to evaluate a landscape and its response to atmospheric drivers in models used in coupled land–atmosphere mode when the forcing is often not commensurate with the actual atmosphere. We explore whether the speed of drying of a land unit can be quantified and how this can be used to evaluate models. We use the most direct observation of drying: the rate of change of evapotranspiration after a rainfall event using eddy-covariance observations, or commonly referred to as flux tower data. We analyse the data and find that the drydown timescale is characteristic of different land cover types, then we use that to evaluate a suite of global hydrological and land surface models. We show that, at the site level, the data suggest that evapotranspiration decay timescales are longer for trees than for grasslands. The studied model’s accuracy to capture the site drydown timescales depends on the specific model, the site, and the vegetation cover representation. A more robust metric is obtained by grouping the modeled data by vegetation type and, using this, we find that land surface models capture the characteristic timescale difference between trees and grasslands, found using flux data, better than large-scale hydrological models. We thus conclude that the drydown metric has value in understanding land–atmosphere interactions and model evaluation.
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