Articles | Volume 21, issue 3
Research article
29 Mar 2017
Research article |  | 29 Mar 2017

Evaluating uncertainties in modelling the snow hydrology of the Fraser River Basin, British Columbia, Canada

Siraj Ul Islam and Stephen J. Déry

Abstract. This study evaluates predictive uncertainties in the snow hydrology of the Fraser River Basin (FRB) of British Columbia (BC), Canada, using the Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) model forced with several high-resolution gridded climate datasets. These datasets include the Canadian Precipitation Analysis and the thin-plate smoothing splines (ANUSPLIN), North American Regional Reanalysis (NARR), University of Washington (UW) and Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium (PCIC) gridded products. Uncertainties are evaluated at different stages of the VIC implementation, starting with the driving datasets, optimization of model parameters, and model calibration during cool and warm phases of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO).

The inter-comparison of the forcing datasets (precipitation and air temperature) and their VIC simulations (snow water equivalent – SWE – and runoff) reveals widespread differences over the FRB, especially in mountainous regions. The ANUSPLIN precipitation shows a considerable dry bias in the Rocky Mountains, whereas the NARR winter air temperature is 2 °C warmer than the other datasets over most of the FRB. In the VIC simulations, the elevation-dependent changes in the maximum SWE (maxSWE) are more prominent at higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains, where the PCIC-VIC simulation accumulates too much SWE and ANUSPLIN-VIC yields an underestimation. Additionally, at each elevation range, the day of maxSWE varies from 10 to 20 days between the VIC simulations. The snow melting season begins early in the NARR-VIC simulation, whereas the PCIC-VIC simulation delays the melting, indicating seasonal uncertainty in SWE simulations. When compared with the observed runoff for the Fraser River main stem at Hope, BC, the ANUSPLIN-VIC simulation shows considerable underestimation of runoff throughout the water year owing to reduced precipitation in the ANUSPLIN forcing dataset. The NARR-VIC simulation yields more winter and spring runoff and earlier decline of flows in summer due to a nearly 15-day earlier onset of the FRB springtime snowmelt.

Analysis of the parametric uncertainty in the VIC calibration process shows that the choice of the initial parameter range plays a crucial role in defining the model hydrological response for the FRB. Furthermore, the VIC calibration process is biased toward cool and warm phases of the PDO and the choice of proper calibration and validation time periods is important for the experimental setup. Overall the VIC hydrological response is prominently influenced by the uncertainties involved in the forcing datasets rather than those in its parameter optimization and experimental setups.

Short summary
This study focuses on predictive uncertainties in the snow hydrology of British Columbia's Fraser River Basin (FRB), using the Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) model forced with several gridded climate datasets. Intercomparisons of forcing datasets and VIC simulations are performed to identify their strengths and weaknesses. This reveals widespread differences over FRB's mountains in precipitation and air temperature forcing datasets and their VIC simulations of runoff/snow water equivalent.