Articles | Volume 15, issue 5
Research article
30 May 2011
Research article |  | 30 May 2011

Runoff regime estimation at high-elevation sites: a parsimonious water balance approach

E. Bartolini, P. Allamano, F. Laio, and P. Claps

Abstract. We develop a water balance model, parsimonious both in terms of parameterization and of required input data, to characterize the average runoff regime of high-elevation and scarcely monitored basins. The model uses a temperature threshold to partition precipitation into rainfall and snowfall, and to estimate evapotranspiration volumes. The role of snow in the transformation of precipitation into runoff is investigated at the monthly time scale through a specific snowmelt module that estimates melted quantities by a non-linear function of temperature. A probabilistic representation of temperature is also introduced, in order to mimic its sub-monthly variability. To account for the commonly reported rainfall underestimation at high elevations, a two-step precipitation adjustment procedure is implemented to guarantee the closure of the water balance.

The model is applied to a group of catchments in the North-Western Italian Alps, and its performances are assessed by comparing measured and simulated runoff regimes both in terms of total bias and anomalies, by means of a new metric, specifically conceived to compare the shape of the two curves. The obtained results indicates that the model is able to predict the observed runoff seasonality satisfactorily, notwithstanding its parsimony (the model has only two parameters to be estimated). In particular, when the parameter calibration is performed separately for each basin, the model proves to be able to reproduce the runoff seasonality. At the regional scale (i.e., with uniform parameters for the whole region), the performance is less positive, but the model is still able to discern among different mechanisms of runoff formation that depend on the role of the snow storage. Because of its parsimony and the robustness in the approach, the model is suitable for application in ungauged basins and for large scale investigations of the role of climatic variables on water availability and runoff timing in mountainous regions.