Articles | Volume 14, issue 2
09 Feb 2010
 | 09 Feb 2010

Uncertainty in the determination of soil hydraulic parameters and its influence on the performance of two hydrological models of different complexity

G. Baroni, A. Facchi, C. Gandolfi, B. Ortuani, D. Horeschi, and J. C. van Dam

Abstract. Data of soil hydraulic properties forms often a limiting factor in unsaturated zone modelling, especially at the larger scales. Investigations for the hydraulic characterization of soils are time-consuming and costly, and the accuracy of the results obtained by the different methodologies is still debated. However, we may wonder how the uncertainty in soil hydraulic parameters relates to the uncertainty of the selected modelling approach. We performed an intensive monitoring study during the cropping season of a 10 ha maize field in Northern Italy. The data were used to: i) compare different methods for determining soil hydraulic parameters and ii) evaluate the effect of the uncertainty in these parameters on different variables (i.e. evapotranspiration, average water content in the root zone, flux at the bottom boundary of the root zone) simulated by two hydrological models of different complexity: SWAP, a widely used model of soil moisture dynamics in unsaturated soils based on Richards equation, and ALHyMUS, a conceptual model of the same dynamics based on a reservoir cascade scheme. We employed five direct and indirect methods to determine soil hydraulic parameters for each horizon of the experimental profile. Two methods were based on a parameter optimization of: a) laboratory measured retention and hydraulic conductivity data and b) field measured retention and hydraulic conductivity data. The remaining three methods were based on the application of widely used Pedo-Transfer Functions: c) Rawls and Brakensiek, d) HYPRES, and e) ROSETTA. Simulations were performed using meteorological, irrigation and crop data measured at the experimental site during the period June – October 2006. Results showed a wide range of soil hydraulic parameter values generated with the different methods, especially for the saturated hydraulic conductivity Ksat and the shape parameter α of the van Genuchten curve. This is reflected in a variability of the modeling results which is, as expected, different for each model and each variable analysed. The variability of the simulated water content in the root zone and of the bottom flux for different soil hydraulic parameter sets is found to be often larger than the difference between modeling results of the two models using the same soil hydraulic parameter set. Also we found that a good agreement in simulated soil moisture patterns may occur even if evapotranspiration and percolation fluxes are significantly different. Therefore multiple output variables should be considered to test the performances of methods and models.