Articles | Volume 27, issue 23
Research article
06 Dec 2023
Research article |  | 06 Dec 2023

Landscape structures regulate the contrasting response of recession along rainfall amounts

Jun-Yi Lee, Ci-Jian Yang, Tsung-Ren Peng, Tsung-Yu Lee, and Jr-Chuan Huang

Streamflow recession, shaped by hydrological processes, runoff dynamics, and catchment storage, is heavily influenced by landscape structure and rainstorm characteristics. However, our understanding of how recession relates to landscape structure and rainstorm characteristics remains inconsistent, with limited research examining their combined impact. This study examines this interplay in shaping recession responses upon 291 sets of recession parameters obtained through the decorrelation process. The data originate from 19 subtropical mountainous rivers and cover events with a wide spectrum of rainfall amounts. Key findings indicate that the recession coefficient (a) increases while the exponent (b) decreases with the L/G ratio (the median of ratios between flow-path length and gradient), suggesting that longer and gentler hillslopes facilitate flow accumulation and aquifer connectivity, ultimately reducing nonlinearity. Additionally, in large catchments, the exponent (b) increases with increasing rainfall due to greater landscape heterogeneity. Conversely, in small catchments, it declines with rainfall, indicating that these catchments have less landscape heterogeneity and thus reduced runoff heterogeneity. Our findings underscore the necessity for further validation of how L/G and drainage area regulate recession responses to varying rainfall levels across diverse regions.

1 Introduction

Streamflow recession, the falling segment of a hydrograph, represents the rainfall-runoff process and interactions among different flow paths and aquifers during a rainstorm. Therefore, the streamflow recession and its link with flow paths within the landscape and aquifers are particularly critical for baseflow estimation (Palmroth et al., 2010). A power-law relationship, -dQ/dt=a^Qb, between the rate of change in streamflow and streamflow rate Q is widely used to describe the recession at the catchment scale (e.g., Brutsaert and Nieber, 1977). The recession parameters a^ and b arise from the geometric and hydraulic properties of the aquifer system. The recession coefficient a^ is tangled with the unit of streamflow and exponent b, which represents the nonlinearity of storage and is the slope of the regression line of log(-dQ/dt) vs. log (Q) (see Sect. 2.2.2).

Since aquifers in various landscape units (hillslopes, riparian areas, streams, etc.) exhibit different hydraulic properties, theoretical studies have shown that the streamflow recession parameters depend on the landscape structure or aquifer properties. In general, coefficient a^ shows a positive correlation with stream length and aquifer slope (Rupp and Selker, 2006), while it exhibits a negative correlation with drainage area, aquifer depth, aquifer heterogeneity (Rupp and Selker, 2006), and inter-hillslope heterogeneity (Harman et al., 2009). On the other hand, exponent b tends to increase with the number of streams (Biswal and Marani, 2010), aquifer heterogeneity (Rupp and Selker, 2006), and inter-hillslope heterogeneity (Harman et al., 2009), whereas it decreases with the total stream length (Biswal and Marani, 2010).

Additionally, theoretical studies have demonstrated that streamflow recession parameters are subject not only to the influences of landscape and aquifer systems but also to the interplay with antecedent storage and rainfall events. For example, coefficient a^ is negatively correlated with the recharge rate (Harman et al., 2009), the streamflow rate (Biswal and Nagesh Kumar, 2014), and the initial groundwater table under unsaturated conditions, while it has a slightly positive correlation under saturated conditions (Rupp and Selker, 2006). The exponent b slightly increases with a wet antecedent condition (Harman et al., 2009). However, drainage network theory indicates that b increases with peak flow while the downstream channel receives more subsurface flow contribution but decreases with peak flow as the downstream channel receives less (Biswal and Nagesh Kumar, 2013). The inconsistent responses in a^ and b among theories indicate a complicated interaction between landscape structure and rainstorms during recession, implying that the recession mechanics in different regions need more exploration.

Tables 1 and S1 in the Supplement respectively summarize and compile previous empirical recession studies, and two main takeaways are addressed. (1) The responses of a^ and b to landscape features and structure are inconsistent. Such inconsistent results might be landscape dependent (e.g., different regional conditions). (2) These inconsistent recession responses might be due to different analysis methods. Most previous studies aggregated long-term data to a point cloud, a collection of multiple recession curves, to retrieve representative recession parameters, while some recent studies retrieved parameters from individual events to elucidate the temporal variability of recession. Fewer studies simultaneously addressed recession responses to landscape structure and distinct rainstorm events. For example, Biswal and Nagesh Kumar (2013) found that the structure of drainage networks might result in contrasting directions in the response of b to peak flow. However, they did not specifically identify which landscape characteristics would predominantly influence the directional switch in the response of parameter b to rainfall.

Table 1Summary of empirical recession study results. Numbers inside cells correspond to the reference numbers in Table S1. The asterisk () represents this study. The “+”, “”, and “×” samples represent positive, negative, and no correlation with factors, respectively.

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Everything considered, the theory behind streamflow recession is still developing, and it is clear that we need a better understanding of how landscape structure and rainstorm characteristics affect streamflow recession, especially with the necessity of regional recession assessments under climate change. Thus, this study derived the recession coefficient and exponent in 19 mountainous catchments across Taiwan with multiyear records of hourly streamflow (291 events in total). These catchments, with drainage areas of 77–2089 km2, are characterized by steep, fractured, forested mountains and periodic typhoon invasions. As a result of these characteristics, Taiwan's rivers have short water residence time and limited water retention capacity (Lee et al., 2020). We addressed three research questions. (1) What are the recession characteristics of typhoon events in small mountainous catchments? (2) How do landscape and rainstorm variables affect recession parameters in different regions? (3) In what way do landscape variables regulate the response of recession parameters to rainfall? In this study, we document the spatial patterns of recession parameters in Taiwan (Sect. 3) and then discuss how recession behaviors change in different landscape settings (Sect. 4).

2 Material and methods

2.1 Study area

Taiwan is a mountainous island geographically located at the juncture between the Eurasian and Philippine tectonic plates and climatologically located in the corridor of typhoons. An active mountain belt with frequent typhoons shapes a steep and fractured landscape with verdant forests. The mean annual rainfall is about 2510 mm, and approx. 40 % of annual rainfall is brought by typhoons within a few days (Huang et al., 2014). The lowest mean annual temperature is approx. 4 C in montane regions and 22 C in the coastal plains. The mountains of Taiwan reach an elevation of 4000 m within a short horizontal distance (∼75 km) from the coast, creating a steep terrain (Huang et al., 2016). Specifically, the drainage area of most catchments is smaller than ∼500km2, and stream lengths are less than ∼55 km (Fig. 1). The basic catchment descriptions, including landscape variables, can be found in Table S2 in the Supplement. Land cover inventories from the Taiwan Ministry of the Interior (, last access: 29 November 2023) were reclassified into three major categories, namely, water (CW), forest (CF), agriculture (CA), and others. The landscape metric was retrieved from the digital elevation model (DEM) with 20 m resolution: A is the drainage area [km2]; DD is the drainage density [km km−2], defined as the ratio of total stream length to drainage area; Sm is the gradient of the main stem [%]; HI is the hypsometric integral [–]; and ELO is the basin elongation [–], defined as the ratio of the diameter of the circle with the same area as the basin to basin length.

In addition to the primary landscape variables described above, we incorporated flow-path-associated variables into our study, as flow path is an explicit proxy for aquifer systems. Within a gridded DEM, the flow path is defined as the route followed by water from a grid cell, following the surface flow direction towards the channel cell (see details in Tetzlaff et al., 2009). Specifically, flow path length (lfp) is the route length from a cell to the nearest channel cell, flow path height (hfp) is the elevation difference between the specific cell to the nearest channel cell, and flow path gradient (gfp) is calculated as flow path height divided by flow path length. Each cell possesses its own value of lfp, hfp, gfp, and lfp/gfp. Since the velocity of gravity-driven flow is typically proportional to the gradient (v=lfp/Thfp/lfp), this implies that the time (T) is proportional to lfp/gfp: Tlfp2/hfp=lfp/gfp. Consequently, lfp/gfp could serve as a potential proxy for residence time. Within a catchment, the medians of the lfp, hfp, and gfp distributions (L, H, and G) served as representative flow path characteristics. Please be aware that we defined the median of lfp/gfp (L/G) in our study, differing from the previous study by McGuire et al. (2005), which directly used the median lfp divided by the median gfp. In the hydrological context, lfp/gfp represents the residence time of each flow path, while the median of lfp/gfp reflects catchment-wide residence time. The detailed definition and calculation of the flow-path-associated variables are illustrated in Table S3 in the Supplement.

Streamflow in this steep mountainous island descends quickly after a typhoon invasion. Thus, hourly streamflow records are required to describe the entire streamflow recession since it only lasts a few days after the peak. This study collected hourly streamflow records during 1986–2014 from the Taiwan Water Resource Agency (, last access: 29 November 2023) and Tai-Power Company (, last access: 29 November 2023). Only the catchments without large water division infrastructures in the upstream area and with total rainfall greater than 30 mm were used to avoid human-manipulated streamflow data. Based on these criteria, 19 catchments and 291 events were included for further recession analysis. Commensurate with the hourly streamflow, the hourly rainfall dataset from the Taiwan Central Weather Bureau (, last access: 29 November 2023) was collected, and the Thiessen weighted method was used to estimate areal rainfall in the corresponding catchments. The cumulative rainfall window was defined as the elapsed time from 6 h before the rising flow to the peak flow. We do not consider rainfall amount after peak flow because there is typically less rainfall occurring after the peak flow. Hydroclimate metrics of rainstorm and streamflow, including total precipitation (P), duration (D), average precipitation intensity (Iavg), total streamflow (Qtot), peak flow (Qp), antecedent streamflow (Qant), and runoff coefficient (Qtot/P), were extracted from these datasets (Tables S3 and S4 in the Supplement).

2.2 Recession analysis

The storage–outflow relationship is typically described by a power law if treating the catchment as a black box. The representative storage is, in fact, composed of many aquifers and thus exhibits a nonlinear relationship:

(1) Q = m S n ,

where S is the storage volume within a catchment (in units of volume [L3] or depth [L]), Q is the rate of streamflow ([L3 T−1] or [L T−1]), and m and n are constants (Vogel and Kroll, 1992). Since S is difficult to directly measure, the relationship between the rate of streamflow decline and streamflow could be derived to represent the recession behavior (Brutsaert and Nieber, 1977) in Eq. (2).

(2) - d Q d t = n m 1 n Q 2 n - 1 n = a ^ Q b ,

where a^ is the recession rate, and b represents the nonlinearity of storage, which is also the slope of the regression line in the plot of log(-dQ/dt) vs. log (Q) (the recession plot). Both parameters can be estimated via different assumptions and fitting techniques. Notably, since nonlinearity is dimensionless, a^ is inherently strongly dependent on the units of Q and b via fitting (see details in Sect. 2.2.2). Although the recession plot enables the analysis of streamflow recession and facilitates the derivation of the storage–outflow relationship (Stölzle et al., 2013), the methods of recession segment extraction affect parameter estimation. For example, Stölzle et al. (2013) compared three extraction methods in conjunction with their corresponding parameter estimations. They found that recession characteristics, like recession time (1/a^), varied over 1–2 orders of magnitude, yet nonlinearity, b, varied rather narrowly. Their results suggested that the recession characteristics derived from different procedures have only limited comparability. Further, Dralle et al. (2017) found that the relationship between a^ and antecedent wetness was sensitive to the number of data points and thus the extraction method. Despite the estimated parameters being inconsistent among the procedures, applying the same procedure is still a feasible way to capture the recession responses in a region.

2.2.1 Recession segment extraction

In the extraction procedure, two concerns should be addressed: (1) distinguishing between the early and late recession stages and (2) eliminating any unexpectedly positive increases in the recession. The early stage (containing pre-storm and surface flow) and the late stage of recession (dominated only by base flow) are indistinguishable and usually determined subjectively. Some studies have empirically excluded the early-stage recession to eliminate the influence of quick flow (e.g., Brutsaert, 2008; Vogel and Kroll, 1992). Others used a threshold for the minimum length of extraction procedures, which ranged from 2 to 10 d (e.g., Mendoza et al., 2003; Vogel and Kroll, 1992). For eliminating unexpected positive increases during recession, several approaches have been proposed as well, e.g., smoothing the hydrograph (Vogel and Kroll, 1992), discarding the segment entirely (Brutsaert, 2008; Kirchner, 2009), and breaking and rejoining the recession segments (Millares et al., 2009). Each strategy has its advantages and disadvantages; smoothing the hydrograph may not completely erase the bulges caused by precipitation and discarding the segment loses parts of recession events. Although breaking and rejoining the recession, too, disturbs the original streamflow records, the method which maintains the more complete recession event is preferable here.

For the recession segment extraction, first the recession evolution caused by rainstorms was a main concern; thus, we selected the whole recession segment from the peak flow of all individual rainstorm. The whole recession segment represents the interactive mixing of quick and base flow. Second, we screened and broke down the hydrograph where abrupt bulges emerged, erased positive streamflow increases, and concatenated the remaining segments. This elimination procedure produces a curve quite similar to the master recession curve on a long-term scale (Millares et al., 2009). Third, data points corresponding to extremely low streamflow (Q<0.1mm h−1) or recession (-dQ/dt<0.01mm h−2), being likely affected by the limits of streamflow measurement, were excluded. Fourth, rainfall events with an unreasonable ratio of total flow to total rainfall (Q/P>1.1 or Q/P<0.1) were also excluded to guarantee the data quality. Ultimately, a total of 298 rainstorms were selected for further parameter estimation.

2.2.2 Parameter fitting

In recession analysis, several fitting methods have been proposed. One approach involves fitting the lower envelope of a collection of multiple recession curves, which is referred to as point cloud (Brutsaert and Nieber, 1977). Taking the lower envelope can prevent the evapotranspiration effect which leads to higher values of -dQ/dt. Another is to fit with the entire point cloud (Brutsaert, 2005; Vogel and Kroll, 1992) as subsoil heterogeneity may overshadow the evapotranspiration effect in larger or steeper catchments (Brutsaert, 2005). Yet another is to fit with the binned means weighted by the square of the standard error of each binned mean (Kirchner, 2009), because the lower values of -dQ/dt could be affected by the measurement errors in the streamflow observations. Recently, a virtual experiment study (Jachens et al., 2020) suggested fitting with individual recession segments to explore the recession responses to individual rainstorms.

The parameter estimation from the retrieved recession segments is described below. Firstly, we corrected low-flow records: the same low-flow levels appear frequently in late recession due to the detection limit of instruments, resulting in a series of zero -dQ/dt values that affect parameter estimation, particularly for b. To reduce this bias, we applied the exponential time step method (Roques et al., 2017) in which the time step of the moving window for calculating -dQ/dt exponentially increases along the recession. This extended sampling period helps avoid the occurrence of zero -dQ/dt values (Roques et al., 2017).

An important concern in recession parameter estimation is the dependence between a^ and b, which confounds the interpretation of parameters (Dralle et al., 2015). The decorrelation method assumes that the observed flow, Q, consists of a scale-free flow Q^ and a constant k (Q=kQ^). Thus, the power-law formula can be rewritten as -dQ/dt=akb-1Q^b, where a is the scale-free recession coefficient [h−1]. For correcting a^ to a, the observed flow Q was divided by a constant Q0 (which is ideally equal to 1/k; see details in Dralle et al., 2015):

(3) Q 0 = exp - i = 1 N ( b i - b ) ( log ( a ^ i ) - log ( a ^ i ) ) i = 1 N ( b i - b ) 2 ,

where b and log(a^) are the means of the fitted parameters b {b1,b2,,bN} and log(a^) {log(a^1),log(a^2),,log(a^N)}, respectively, across N rainfall events in a given catchment. Although the decorrelation method can reduce the unit effect and dependency on b, Biswal (2021) argued that the dependency of a^ and b can not be fully decoupled, and retrieving parameters from the power law and fixing b is preferable. Obviously, decoupling the dependency of a^ and b in recession is unsolved and challenging, and it necessitates further study. Nevertheless, after the decorrelation process, the number of catchments with a high correlation between a and b (R2>0.1) decreased from 9 to 2, apparently mitigating the unit effect and dependency of b. Finally, events with low goodness of fit (R2<0.5) were discarded. As a result, 291 events and all watersheds, with 5 to 26 events each (Table S4), were included for exploring the landscape and rainstorm effects. Each individual storm event may not necessarily occur in all catchments.

3 Results

3.1 Recession parameters from individual and point-cloud fits

The streamflow recession plots of catchments W9, W5, and W8, as examples, are illustrated in Fig. 2. The three catchments have distinct differences in landscape, particularly in drainage area (A) and the ratio of flow-path length to gradient (L/G). Catchment W9 has a larger A and lower L/G, W5 has a smaller A and lower L/G, and W8 has a smaller A but higher L/G; see Table S2 for catchment details. Median b values, in descending order, were 2.34 in catchment W9, 1.96 in W5, and 1.63 in W8. The point-cloud-derived b values were 1.45 (W9), 1.37 (W5), and 0.88 (W8), showing that point-cloud-derived b values are smaller than median-derived values (Fig. 2c). Notably, the exponent b decreases with storm magnitude in W5 and W8 but increases with storm magnitude in W9 (Fig. 2b and c). The contradictory responses observed in these three catchments might be attributed to variations in their landscape structure and rainstorm characteristics. This apparent association is explored further in the Discussion section.

Figure 1Topographic map of Taiwan and the locations of the selected catchments (red dots) and associated watersheds (outlines). The catchment IDs correspond to the IDs in Tables S2 and S3, in which the primary descriptions of hydrologic events and landscape variables are listed.

Figure 2Landscape and recession plots for catchment W9 (row 1), W5 (row 2), and W8 (row 3). Landscape and flow-path topography (L/G) are shown in column (a). Selected recession segments from different rainstorms are shown in (b). Recession plots of all selected rainstorms are shown in column (c). The median of recession parameters a and bm and the parameter bpc derived from the point cloud are shown in the lower-right corner. The recession b from individual segments are colored from purple to yellow with increasing value of b, and the red line represents b derived using the point-cloud method.

The frequency distributions of the fitted recession coefficients and nonlinearities from all catchments and event records are shown in Fig. 3a and b. Recession coefficient a ranged from 0.003 to 0.273 h−1 with a mean of 0.059 h−1 and median of 0.047 h−1. The large difference between the median and mean reflects a right-skewed distribution. Exponent b ranged from 0.90 to 4.39 with a mean of 1.76 and median of 1.69. The small difference between the median and mean suggests a relatively symmetric distribution. Spatial patterns of recession coefficient and exponent b are illustrated in Fig. 3c and d. Generally, larger recession coefficients were seen in the southwestern plain catchments (Fig. 3c), which have higher L/G ratios. Apart from this, no other distinct pattern can be found in other more mountainous catchments. Conversely, the plot of recession nonlinearity shows no clear connection to large-scale landscape features on the island (Fig. 3d).

Figure 3Distributions of recession parameters a (a) and b (b) estimates in all catchments and events. The spatial distributions of the medians of parameters a (c) and b (d). The colors of the dots represent the quantiles category.

The recession parameters derived from individual segments and aggregated point-cloud data are illustrated in Fig. 4. The variations of recession responses from individual segments differed greatly among catchments. For parameter a, point-cloud-derived values, which aggregate all recession segments in a catchment, are much larger than the coefficients from individual segments. Notably, when the catchment size exceeds approximately 500 km2 (W19), the point-cloud-derived coefficients become similar to the third quantile of the coefficient distribution from individual segments. For exponent b, the values derived from the point cloud are consistently close to the lower limit of the distribution of the individual segment-derived values and the median and interquartile range of exponent b derived from individual segments are not correlated with drainage area. These distinct differences between coefficients and exponent b from the two fitting methods make comparison and interpretation difficult. The details of the recession characteristics for each catchment can be found in Table S5 in the Supplement.

Figure 4Boxplots of coefficient a (a) and exponent b (b) derived from the individual recession segments (cyan box) and point-cloud data (orange dot). The catchments are arranged on the x axis in ascending order according to drainage area. Boxes show the interquartile and data range.


3.2 Relationships between recession parameters and event/landscape variables

To capture how rainfall forcing affects streamflow recession, correlation analyses were performed. The correlation coefficients between recession parameters and event-associated variables are shown in Fig. 5 and Table 2. The total precipitation (P), duration (D), total streamflow (Qtot), antecedent streamflow (Qant), and runoff coefficient (Qtot/P) were negatively correlated with the recession coefficient, a. The average precipitation intensity (Iavg) and peak flow (Qp), both of which represent the rainstorm magnitude, were not significantly correlated to a. As for initial event conditions, the 7 d antecedent precipitation, AP7day, defined as the 7 d rainfall amount prior to a rainstorm, was not correlated to a nor were other AP period lengths (3, 5, 14, or 30 d). Unlike the recession coefficient, exponent b was only correlated with two, Qant and Qp, with positive and negative correlations, respectively. This indicates that higher antecedent flow could lead to higher nonlinearity and peak flow to lower. Overall, hydrometric forcing moderately controls the coefficient and only slightly affects nonlinearity.

Figure 5Correlation of recession parameters a and b against rainstorm event and landscape variables. Below the diagonal: pairwise scatter plots of the recession parameters and variables with a power-fit regression (red line). Above the diagonal: corresponding Spearman correlation coefficients. Blue and red values indicate statistically significant (p<0.05) positive and negative correlations, respectively. Note that all catchments and events are shown in this figure.


Table 2Spearman correlation coefficients between logarithmic hydrometric characteristics and recession characteristics for all rainfall events at all catchments (n=291). Bold font represents statistically significant at the 99 % confidence level (p value<0.01).

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Regarding landscape variables, the average height (H), length (L), and gradient (G) of the flow path were approx. 120 m, 252 m, and 0.47, respectively (Table S2). The mean L/G value for our catchments was approx. 951 m. Forest coverage (CF), ranging between 11.8 %–92.1 %, was the dominant landscape type for most mountainous catchments. Notably, the catchments in the western plain are characterized by gentle gradients of flow path, such as catchments W8, W9, W11, W12, W13, and W14, where agriculture is the dominant land cover. The correlations of recession parameters against landscape variables are illustrated in Fig. 5 and Table 2. Most landscape variables (H, L, G, L/G, DD, Sm, HI, CW, CF, and CA) are significantly correlated with the coefficient, particularly the flow-path-associated ones (H, L, G, L/G, and DD). Flow-path height (H), length (L), and gradient (G) were negatively correlated to the coefficient, but L/G and DD were positively correlated. Additionally, the coefficient increases as HI and Sm decrease. Looking at land cover, the coefficient increases with CW (proportion of water body land cover) and CA (proportion of agriculture land cover) and decreases with CF (proportion of forest land cover). Greater water-body or agricultural land area in a catchment lead to a faster recession, yet greater forested land area can slow recession. Correlations between b and the landscape variables were generally weaker and of the opposite sign than the correlations seen with a. There also were less significant correlations. In short, most landscape variables are moderately associated with the coefficient and low-to-moderately associated with exponent b. Perhaps, putting all catchments with various landscape features together would obscure the landscape's control in recession.

4 Discussion

4.1 Recession parameters in small mountainous rivers

The point-cloud estimates are distinctly different from the estimates from the individual recessions (Fig. 4). The larger a and smaller b values derived from the point cloud compared to those derived from individual segments could be expected due to the influence of antecedent flow and superimposition of recession events (Jachens et al., 2020). Since a and b are inherently dependent and while the decorrelation method might be only valid for some specific cases (Biswal, 2021), the way (e.g., fixing b) to obtain the a or b of an individual event is still goal-dependent (Sharma and Biswal, 2022). Even so, using the median from individual segments is suggested, compared to the point-cloud derivation (Dralle et al., 2017; Jachens et al., 2020).

Higher median recession coefficients were found in W8, W11, W12, and W14, which we attributed to the landscape features of shorter and gentler flow paths, i.e., dense drainage networks. By contrast, catchments with longer and steeper flow paths, such as W7 and W15, have lower median recession coefficients. Taken together, these data demonstrate how drainage density and flow-path-associated variables can affect the recession coefficient. The findings presented in Table 2 corroborate this (discussed more in Sect. 4.2). On the other hand, the median of exponent b is approx. 1.69 (Fig. 3b) with a range of 0.90 to 4.39, which is also comparable to the ranges found in the literature. For example, values of b from 0.5 to 2.1 could be found in 220 Swedish catchments with low-flow data (Bogaart et al., 2016), 0.6 to 1.7 for 22 Taiwanese rivers derived from low-flow data (Yeh and Huang, 2019), and 1.5 to 3.2 for 67 US watersheds with event data (Biswal and Marani, 2010). Nonlinear storage–outflow relationships (b is not equal to 1.0) are prevalent for most catchments worldwide. In our cases, the highest and lowest median values of b were found in W7 and W19, respectively. Despite the fact that these two catchments have similar landscape structures, their exponent b exhibits distinct differences. Perhaps, other controlling factors, such as geological structure (i.e., connectivity between the deep aquifer and the stream, heterogeneous hydraulic properties, and/or the interface slope between the shallow and bedrock layers; see Roques et al., 2022) or land cover (Tague and Grant, 2004) might alter recession behavior as well.

4.2 Landscape structure controls on the median of recession parameters

Landscape structure aggregates catchment hydraulic properties, embodying recession parameters conceptually. Therefore, recession behaviors in a catchment could be interpreted from two perspectives, hillslope hydraulics and inter-hillslope heterogeneity (Harman et al., 2009), both of which could be represented by the flow-path-associated variables (e.g., H, L, G, L/G, and DD in Table 2) and drainage area. Notably, heterogeneity increases with drainage area because of the possibility of including a wider range of subsurface conditions. Recession nonlinearity also increases with drainage area since a larger area accommodates a higher possibility of superimposition of multiple linear reservoirs, which has been seen in the 68 km2 Mahurangi watershed, New Zealand (McMillan et al., 2014), and the 41 ha Panola Mountain Research Watershed, USA (Clark et al., 2009; Harman et al., 2009), though this does not appear to be the case in our study (Fig. 6a). Moreover, the correlation analysis showed that flow-path-associated variables (H, L, G, L/G, DD) only have a weak correlation with the recession nonlinearity (Table 2).

Figure 6The relationship between drainage area and the recession exponent b (a) and the flow path topography (L/G) (b). The error bar in panel (a) is the range of the individual segment recession exponent values of each catchment. The orange and gray dots represent small and large catchments (< and >500km2, respectively), respectively, and the solid and hollow dots represent large and small L/G. The recession behaviors in small and large catchments could be explained from two perspectives: hydraulic theory (orange box) and heterogeneity issues (gray box).


The weak correlation between recession nonlinearity and those variables may be attributed to two factors. First, there is the scale effect. Some of our catchments are much larger than 500 km2, which far exceeds the extent of rainstorms (usually less than 200 km2). In these large catchments, the limited extent of rainstorms would not bring about a comprehensive recession response in the outflow hydrograph (Huang et al., 2012). Second, the drainage area cannot reflect the unknown number of aquifers (Ajami et al., 2011), making it unclear whether a positive relationship exists between nonlinearity and drainage area in our study. Moreover, Karlsen et al. (2019) argued that the dependence of b on landscape variables would change with the streamflow rate. Specifically, flow path height, H, dominates the nonlinearity during high flow, whereas the drainage area, A, gains more importance during low flow. The relationship between flow-path-associated variables and drainage area and recession needs to be examined in our catchments.

4.2.1 Landscape structure controls on recession coefficient a

Since drainage area could not solely explain our recession behaviors (Fig. 6a), the flow-path-associated variables and drainage area were used to classify the catchments. Surprisingly, an inverse relationship between the L/G ratio and drainage area emerged (Fig. 6b). The L/G ratio, in fact, is highly correlated to DD and the topographic wetness index (Beven and Kirkby, 1979) and is apt to represent the hillslope hydraulics at a catchment scale. In Fig. 6b, all catchments could be simply classified into three types: type A represents large catchments (area >500km2), B represents small catchments with low L/G, and C represents small catchments with high L/G. Another correlation analysis was performed between recession parameters and the flow-path-associated variables (H, L, L/G, and DD) according to these classifications (Fig. 7). The recession coefficients significantly correlated with the flow-path-associated variables, particularly in small catchments (Type B and C only). The fact that H is negatively correlated with the recession coefficient suggests that groundwater flow paths possess greater depth and length, consequently leading to slower drainage rates. While H is commonly believed to be positively correlated with the velocity of gravity-driven flow at a small spatial scale, the high heterogeneity in geology or soil properties at a larger spatial scale (Karlsen et al., 2019) implies that a large H does not necessarily lead to a large recession coefficient. Besides, high DD and short L indicate shorter flow paths and thus lead to a higher recession coefficient. In our cases, Type C catchments are characterized by short L and very small H and thus have high L/G ratios and recession coefficients (solid orange dots in Fig. 7c). Individually, extended L or gentle G is conducive to flow accumulation. Thus, the L/G ratio, which integrates both length and gradient, serves as a good proxy for estimating residence time (McGuire et al., 2005; Asano and Uchida, 2012). Potentially, the relationship between recession parameters and L/G has the chance to establish a further linkage between recession parameters and water residence time.

Figure 7Scatter plots of the median and the range of 10th–90th percentile of recession parameters at each catchment against landscape variables. Solid gray, hollow orange, and solid orange dots are Type A, B, and C basins, respectively. The dashed orange line is the power-law fit for small catchments (Types B and C). The Spearman correlation coefficient (ρ) is listed in the upper-right corner of each panel.


4.2.2 Landscape structure controls on recession nonlinearity b

The recession nonlinearity conditionally responds to landscape structure (Fig. 7e–h). If Type A catchments (large area with low L/G, gray solid dots in Fig. 7) are excluded, all flow-path-associated variables become significantly correlated with exponent b. The positive relationship of b with H indicates that steeper and rougher hillslopes present nonlinear recession behavior. Perhaps, with the increase of L, subsurface runoff has higher chances of flowing through various blocks (e.g., temporarily perched groundwater). The two ratios, DD and L/G, are negatively related to the value of b (Fig. 7g and h). Short-and-gentle hillslopes, like Type C catchments, are conducive to larger saturation areas during rainstorms (Bogaart et al., 2016; Sayama et al., 2011), and the expansion of the saturation area indicates that the whole subsurface becomes saturated and connected well, thus reducing heterogeneity. It suggested that the L/G ratio affects the nonlinearity significantly for small catchments; however, it is not the case for our large catchments, which necessitates further interpretation associated with scale.

4.3 Rainfall amount controls on the variation of recession parameters

Recession behavior is a convolutional response starting as rain falls within catchments. Thus, we separately examined the recession parameters against hydrometric variables for the three catchment types (Types A, B, and C) to rule out the influences (Fig. 8). This produced two significant findings: (1) the recession coefficient, a, decreases with the rainfall amount in all types, and (2) the exponent b shows contrasting responses in Types A and B (Type C is statistically insignificant). In heterogeneity-dominated (large) or hydraulics-dominated (small and steep) catchments, exponent b increases or decreases with rainfall amount, respectively.

Figure 8Scatter plots of recession coefficient, a and exponent b, against total rainfall for recession segments at different catchment types. Type A represents large catchments (area >500km2), B represents small catchments with low L/G ratios, and C represents small catchments with high L/G ratios. Black, gray, and white dots represent the low, medium, and large L/G catchments, respectively. The orange line is the power-law fitting curve with Spearman correlation coefficients in the upper-left corner of each panel ( and denote statistical significance at the 90 % and 99 % levels of confidence, respectively).


4.3.1 Rainfall amount controls on recession coefficient a

Several empirical studies found a positive or independent relationship between a and streamflow; for example, Santos et al. (2019) found that higher streamflow produced a greater a value, reflecting a quick recession in Switzerland's catchments. In Sweden, annual rainfall variation might be independent of the a (Bogaart et al., 2016). However, most studies found a negative relationship between a and storage measures (Table 1). For instance, Biswal and Nagesh Kumar (2014) found a negative correlation between a and the antecedent flow rate, while Ghosh et al. (2015) found that high peak flow events tend to produce a small value of a. In our study, the recession coefficients decreased with rainfall amount in all catchment types (Fig. 8a–c). Harman et al. (2009) demonstrated that the recession coefficient can be expressed as a=V0/Rb-1 (where V0 and R represent the mean of the velocity distribution of hillslope flow and rainfall rate, respectively). In the case of heavy rainfall, the increase of R is much larger than that of V0. The effect of this disproportionate rainfall input increase on a could offset the increase in flow velocity, resulting in a negative correlation. Moreover, Biswal and Nagesh Kumar (2014) used a geomorphological recession flow model ac/qb-1 (where c and q represent the celerity and rate of channel flow, respectively, and which is similar to Harman's theory) to explain why “a” is negatively correlated with “q.” To sum up, the negative correlation between coefficient a and rainfall amount (e.g., peak flow and prior soil moisture) is consistent with the literature and is prevalent in most regions (also see Table 1).

4.3.2 Opposing controls of rainfall on recession nonlinearity b

Literature covering the variation of recession nonlinearity among events is divergent. Previous studies concluded that nonlinearity is controlled by landscape structure and is static or insensitive to rainfall (Biswal and Marani, 2010; Brutsaert and Nieber, 1977; Dralle et al., 2017). In other studies, nonlinearity decreases with streamflow rate, albeit on different temporal scales (Shaw and Riha, 2012; Karlsen et al., 2019; Santos et al., 2019), while nonlinearity has been shown to increase with antecedent flow (Jachens et al., 2020). Furthermore, some studies have even argued that nonlinearity can change over the duration of an event dynamically (Rupp and Selker, 2006; Luo et al., 2018; Roques et al., 2022). Across all catchments, we observed an augmentation of exponent b with antecedent flows but a decline with peak flow (Fig. 5). This augmentation can be attributed to the overlay of event recession flows onto antecedent flows, amplifying the value of b (Jachens et al., 2020). The inverse correlation between b and peak flow suggests that in the majority of catchments the existence of active fast-flow paths could potentially reduce the recession nonlinearity.

Further, our exponent b showed a positive, negative, and flat relationship with rainfall in Type A, B, and C catchments, respectively (Fig. 8d–f). Small catchment areas (Type B and C catchments) may be explained by a two-dimensional hillslope model (Roques et al., 2022). During heavy rainfall, when fast-flow pathways are activated, the exponent b would decrease (Type B catchments, steep slopes), whereas Type C catchments (gentle slopes) with more homogeneous hydraulic conductivity would experience smaller changes in exponent b. Conversely, the exponent b increases with the rainfall amount in Type A catchments. In large and heterogeneous catchments, the expansion of the contributing area is less steady and more complicated; thus the nonlinearity increases with rainfall amount. A contrasting response of exponent b to rainfall similar to the one seen in this study was also found in Biswal and Nagesh Kumar (2013), which attributed it to the change in subsurface flow contributions along the channel that affect the response direction of b. Our study revealed that landscape structure (mainly by A and L/G) and rainfall amount control the direction and magnitude of recession response, respectively. Future research could consider different landscape structures when modeling the intra-event variation of b.

Figure 9A conceptual diagram illustrating how landscape variables regulate the recession direction during rainstorms. The top row presents the drainage area and the stream network of three landscape types of catchments corresponding to Fig. 6b. The middle row presents the cross-sectional valley with descriptions of drainage behavior. Here, (a) Type A, large catchment and steep slope, drains water via multiple sources of subsurface flow; (b) Type B, small catchment and steep slope, drains water via fewer sources of subsurface flow; and (c) Type C, small catchment and gentle slope, drains via the extension of the saturated zone along the riparian zone. Correspondingly, the bottom row shows how their recession parameters (or regressive line) in recession plots would move from light (dashed line) to heavy (solid line) rainstorms.


4.4 Landscape structure regulates recession behavior

The above two sections have demonstrated the influence of landscape and rainfall amount on streamflow recession behavior. Thus, a perceptual model which demonstrates the interactive regulation of landscape structure and rainfall amount on recession nonlinearity is introduced (Fig. 9). Landscape structure is considered in two contexts: spatial heterogeneity (drainage area) and hillslope hydraulics (L/G). The drainage area may correlate to the number of perched storages within the catchments, and the L/G ratio, encapsulating hillslope geometry, can indicate the dynamics of the contributing area associated with runoff generation. Along the spatial heterogeneity dimension (from Type B to A, with increasing drainage area), additional perched storages respond increasingly with rainfall amount and thus enhance the recession nonlinearity. Perched storages are expected to occur where the hydraulic conductivity abruptly decreases due to heterogeneous soil properties or geological structures. The existence of perched storages was found in an experimental forested catchment in Taiwan through an intensive soil water monitoring scheme (Liang, 2020). Large catchments may suffer uneven spatial rainfall, which activates perched storages locally; thus, the nonlinearity increases. On the other hand, along the L/G dimension (increasing from Type B to C), the heterogeneities of hydraulic conductivities decrease. Heavy rainfall, causing saturation and expansion of the saturation area, can mediate the heterogeneity of hydraulic conductivity and thereby reduce nonlinearity.

5 Summary

Streamflow recession, which reflects the rainfall-runoff process after rainstorms, is crucial for baseflow assessment. This study investigated the effects of landscape structure and rainfall amount on recession using power-law recession analysis for 291 rainfall events in small mountainous rivers. In these catchments, the recession coefficient is moderately correlated to landscape structure, while nonlinearity is only weakly correlated to landscape structure. If classifying the catchments in accordance with spatial heterogeneity (drainage area) and hillslope hydraulics (L/G), the recession coefficient increases with L/G and nonlinearity decreases with L/G significantly in small catchments. This likely reveals that both spatial heterogeneity and hydraulic properties regulate recession simultaneously. Along the hillslope hydraulics dimension, small catchments with high L/G attributed to their short-and-gentle hillslopes have higher recession coefficients. Additionally, L/G is negatively correlated to nonlinearity for small catchments, perhaps because short-and-gentle hillslopes can expand saturation area and connect different aquifers easily, thus reducing nonlinearity. Note that a and b are inherently dependent, so some uncertainty might be involved. Even so, both parameters, whether derived using the point cloud or individual segments (Fig. 4), present similar fluctuations among catchments, which supports our arguments.

Rainfall amount affects the recession coefficient. It decreases with rainfall amount for all catchments. On the other hand, contrasting response directions of nonlinearity to rainfall amount could be found along the dimension of spatial heterogeneity (drainage area). Larger catchments exhibited an increase in recession nonlinearity with higher rainfall, whereas smaller catchments showed a decrease in recession nonlinearity with higher rainfall. Conjointly, an interactive regulation of recession by landscape structure and rainfall amount was proposed. In summary, landscape structure (spatial heterogeneity and hillslope hydraulics) may determine the recession behavior via various aquifer settings, and the rainfall amount tunes the magnitude of recession nonlinearity. If the perceptual model is valid, two challenges should be addressed further. First, the contrasting response direction of nonlinearity to rainfall, depending on the predominance of spatial heterogeneity, requires further theoretical validation. Clarifying which environmental factors could represent the spatial heterogeneity and hillslope hydraulics is also an arduous task but is crucial for recession estimation. Second, the careful determination of the response direction of nonlinearity is crucial to the regional recession assessment. An incorrect direction would strongly affect the interpretation, particularly for climatic scenarios. Validating the landscape structure control at the rainstorm scale would aid in completing the understating of recession variations.

Data availability

Hourly streamflow data can be obtained from Taiwan Water Resource Agency and Tai-Power company. The authors declare that data supporting the findings of this study are accessible from the article and its Supplement.


The supplement related to this article is available online at:

Author contributions

Conceptualization and methodology: JYL and JCH. Data curation and validation: TYL. Formal analysis: JYL and CJY. Investigation and writing (original draft): JYL. Writing (review and editing): JCH and TRP.

Competing interests

The contact author has declared that none of the authors has any competing interests.


Publisher's note: Copernicus Publications remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims made in the text, published maps, institutional affiliations, or any other geographical representation in this paper. While Copernicus Publications makes every effort to include appropriate place names, the final responsibility lies with the authors.


We express our gratitude to James Ho for providing insightful comments and language editing.

Financial support

This research has been supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan (grant nos. 110-2811-M-005-509, 109-2811-B-002-631, 110-2811-M-005-521, and 110-2917-I-564-009) and the National Taiwan University (grant no. 107L901004).

Review statement

This paper was edited by Theresa Blume and reviewed by two anonymous referees.


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Short summary
Streamflow recession, shaped by landscape and rainfall, is not well understood. This study examines their combined impact using data from 19 mountainous rivers. Longer, gentler hillslopes promote flow and reduce nonlinearity, while larger catchments with more rainfall show increased landscape heterogeneity. In small catchments, the exponent decreases with rainfall, indicating less landscape and runoff variation. Further research is needed to validate these findings across diverse regions.