Articles | Volume 21, issue 6
Research article
12 Jun 2017
Research article |  | 12 Jun 2017

Understanding hydrologic variability across Europe through catchment classification

Anna Kuentz, Berit Arheimer, Yeshewatesfa Hundecha, and Thorsten Wagener

Abstract. This study contributes to better understanding the physical controls on spatial patterns of pan-European flow signatures – taking advantage of large open datasets for catchment classification and comparative hydrology. Similarities in 16 flow signatures and 35 catchment descriptors were explored for 35 215 catchments and 1366 river gauges across Europe. Correlation analyses and stepwise regressions were used to identify the best explanatory variables for each signature. Catchments were clustered and analyzed for similarities in flow signature values, physiography and the combination of the two. We found the following. (i) A 15 to 33 % (depending on the classification used) improvement in regression model skills when combined with catchment classification versus simply using all catchments at once. (ii) Twelve out of 16 flow signatures were mainly controlled by climatic characteristics, especially those related to average and high flows. For the baseflow index, geology was more important and topography was the main control for the flashiness of flow. For most of the flow signatures, the second most important descriptor is generally land cover (mean flow, high flows, runoff coefficient, ET, variability of reversals). (iii) Using a classification and regression tree (CART), we further show that Europe can be divided into 10 classes with both similar flow signatures and physiography. The most dominant separation found was between energy-limited and moisture-limited catchments. The CART analyses also separated different explanatory variables for the same class of catchments. For example, the damped peak response for one class was explained by the presence of large water bodies for some catchments, while large flatland areas explained it for other catchments in the same class. In conclusion, we find that this type of comparative hydrology is a helpful tool for understanding hydrological variability, but is constrained by unknown human impacts on the water cycle and by relatively crude explanatory variables.

Short summary
Our study aims to explore and understand the physical controls on spatial patterns of pan-European flow signatures by taking advantage of large open datasets. Using tools like correlation analysis, stepwise regressions and different types of catchment classifications, we explore the relationships between catchment descriptors and flow signatures across 35 215 catchments which cover a wide range of pan-European physiographic and anthropogenic characteristics.