Articles | Volume 17, issue 12
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 17, 4869–4884, 2013
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 17, 4869–4884, 2013

Research article 06 Dec 2013

Research article | 06 Dec 2013

Should we use a simple or complex model for moisture recycling and atmospheric moisture tracking?

R. J. van der Ent1, O. A. Tuinenburg2,*, H.-R. Knoche3, H. Kunstmann3,4, and H. H. G. Savenije1 R. J. van der Ent et al.
  • 1Department of Water Management, Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Delft University of Technology, P.O. Box 5048, 2600GA Delft, the Netherlands
  • 2Earth System Science and Climate Change Group, Wageningen University and Research Centre, P.O. Box 9101, 6700HB Wageningen, the Netherlands
  • 3Interaction Climate-Atmosphere Department, Institute for Meteorology and Climate Research – Atmospheric Environmental Research (IMK-IFU), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Kreuzeckbahnstraße 19, 82467 Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
  • 4Department of Geography, Augsburg University, Universitätsstraße 10, 86159 Augsburg, Germany
  • *now at: Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique, IPSL/CNRS/UPMC, 4, place Jussieu, 75252 Paris Cedex 05, France

Abstract. This paper compares state-of-the-art atmospheric moisture tracking models. Such models are typically used to study the water component of coupled land and atmosphere models, in particular quantifying moisture recycling and the source-sink relations between evaporation and precipitation. There are several atmospheric moisture tracking methods in use. However, depending on the level of aggregation, the assumptions made and the level of detail, the performance of these methods may differ substantially. In this paper, we compare three methods. The RCM-tag method uses highly accurate 3-D water tracking (including phase transitions) directly within a regional climate model (online), while the other two methods (WAM and 3D-T) use a posteriori (offline) water vapour tracking. The original version of WAM is a single-layer model, while 3D-T is a multi-layer model, but both make use the "well-mixed" assumption for evaporation and precipitation. The a posteriori models are faster and more flexible, but less accurate than online moisture tracking with RCM-tag. In order to evaluate the accuracy of the a posteriori models, we tagged evaporated water from Lake Volta in West Africa and traced it to where it precipitates. It is found that the strong wind shear in West Africa is the main cause of errors in the a posteriori models. The number of vertical layers and the initial release height of tagged water in the model are found to have the most significant influences on the results. With this knowledge small improvements have been made to the a posteriori models. It appeared that expanding WAM to a 2-layer model, or a lower release height in 3D-T, led to significantly better results. Finally, we introduced a simple metric to assess wind shear globally and give recommendations about when to use which model. The "best" method, however, very much depends on the research question, the spatial extent under investigation, as well as the available computational power.