Articles | Volume 18, issue 8
Research article
29 Aug 2014
Research article |  | 29 Aug 2014

The importance of hydrological uncertainty assessment methods in climate change impact studies

M. Honti, A. Scheidegger, and C. Stamm

Abstract. Climate change impact assessments have become more and more popular in hydrology since the middle 1980s with a recent boost after the publication of the IPCC AR4 report. From hundreds of impact studies a quasi-standard methodology has emerged, to a large extent shaped by the growing public demand for predicting how water resources management or flood protection should change in the coming decades. The "standard" workflow relies on a model cascade from global circulation model (GCM) predictions for selected IPCC scenarios to future catchment hydrology. Uncertainty is present at each level and propagates through the model cascade. There is an emerging consensus between many studies on the relative importance of the different uncertainty sources. The prevailing perception is that GCM uncertainty dominates hydrological impact studies. Our hypothesis was that the relative importance of climatic and hydrologic uncertainty is (among other factors) heavily influenced by the uncertainty assessment method. To test this we carried out a climate change impact assessment and estimated the relative importance of the uncertainty sources. The study was performed on two small catchments in the Swiss Plateau with a lumped conceptual rainfall runoff model. In the climatic part we applied the standard ensemble approach to quantify uncertainty but in hydrology we used formal Bayesian uncertainty assessment with two different likelihood functions. One was a time series error model that was able to deal with the complicated statistical properties of hydrological model residuals. The second was an approximate likelihood function for the flow quantiles. The results showed that the expected climatic impact on flow quantiles was small compared to prediction uncertainty. The choice of uncertainty assessment method actually determined what sources of uncertainty could be identified at all. This demonstrated that one could arrive at rather different conclusions about the causes behind predictive uncertainty for the same hydrological model and calibration data when considering different objective functions for calibration.