Articles | Volume 16, issue 11
Research article
26 Nov 2012
Research article |  | 26 Nov 2012

Exploring the physical controls of regional patterns of flow duration curves – Part 2: Role of seasonality, the regime curve, and associated process controls

S. Ye, M. Yaeger, E. Coopersmith, L. Cheng, and M. Sivapalan

Abstract. The goal of this paper is to explore the process controls underpinning regional patterns of variations of streamflow regime behavior, i.e., the mean seasonal variation of streamflow within the year, across the continental United States. The ultimate motivation is to use the resulting process understanding to generate insights into the physical controls of another signature of streamflow variability, namely the flow duration curve (FDC). The construction of the FDC removes the time dependence of flows. Thus in order to better understand the physical controls in regions that exhibit strong seasonal dependence, the regime curve (RC), which is closely connected to the FDC, is studied in this paper and later linked back to the FDC. To achieve these aims a top-down modeling approach is adopted; we start with a simple two-stage bucket model, which is systematically enhanced through addition of new processes on the basis of model performance assessment in relation to observations, using rainfall-runoff data from 197 United States catchments belonging to the MOPEX dataset. Exploration of dominant processes and the determination of required model complexity are carried out through model-based sensitivity analyses, guided by a performance metric. Results indicated systematic regional trends in dominant processes: snowmelt was a key process control in cold mountainous catchments in the north and north-west, whereas snowmelt and vegetation cover dynamics were key controls in the north-east; seasonal vegetation cover dynamics (phenology and interception) were important along the Appalachian mountain range in the east. A simple two-bucket model (with no other additions) was found to be adequate in warm humid catchments along the west coast and in the south-east, with both regions exhibiting strong seasonality, whereas much more complex models are needed in the dry south and south-west. Agricultural catchments in the mid-west were found to be difficult to predict with the use of simple lumped models, due to the strong influence of human activities. Overall, these process controls arose from general east-west (seasonality) and north-south (aridity, temperature) trends in climate (with some exceptions), compounded by complex dynamics of vegetation cover and to a less extent by landscape factors (soils, geology and topography).