Articles | Volume 19, issue 2
Research article
10 Feb 2015
Research article |  | 10 Feb 2015

Calibration approaches for distributed hydrologic models in poorly gaged basins: implication for streamflow projections under climate change

S. Wi, Y. C. E. Yang, S. Steinschneider, A. Khalil, and C. M. Brown

Abstract. This study tests the performance and uncertainty of calibration strategies for a spatially distributed hydrologic model in order to improve model simulation accuracy and understand prediction uncertainty at interior ungaged sites of a sparsely gaged watershed. The study is conducted using a distributed version of the HYMOD hydrologic model (HYMOD_DS) applied to the Kabul River basin. Several calibration experiments are conducted to understand the benefits and costs associated with different calibration choices, including (1) whether multisite gaged data should be used simultaneously or in a stepwise manner during model fitting, (2) the effects of increasing parameter complexity, and (3) the potential to estimate interior watershed flows using only gaged data at the basin outlet. The implications of the different calibration strategies are considered in the context of hydrologic projections under climate change. To address the research questions, high-performance computing is utilized to manage the computational burden that results from high-dimensional optimization problems. Several interesting results emerge from the study. The simultaneous use of multisite data is shown to improve the calibration over a stepwise approach, and both multisite approaches far exceed a calibration based on only the basin outlet. The basin outlet calibration can lead to projections of mid-21st century streamflow that deviate substantially from projections under multisite calibration strategies, supporting the use of caution when using distributed models in data-scarce regions for climate change impact assessments. Surprisingly, increased parameter complexity does not substantially increase the uncertainty in streamflow projections, even though parameter equifinality does emerge. The results suggest that increased (excessive) parameter complexity does not always lead to increased predictive uncertainty if structural uncertainties are present. The largest uncertainty in future streamflow results from variations in projected climate between climate models, which substantially outweighs the calibration uncertainty.

Short summary
This study shows that multisite calibration approaches for a distributed hydrologic model far exceed a calibration based on only the basin outlet. It also reveals advantages of semi-distributed over (non-parsimonious) fully distributed parameter schematization, by means of improved predictive capacity and reduced parameter uncertainty. The uncertainty in future streamflow resulting from variations in projected climate between GCMs substantially outweighs the calibration uncertainty.