Towards reduced uncertainty in catchment nitrogen modelling: quantifying the effect of field observation uncertainty on model calibration
Abstract. The value of nitrogen (N) field measurements for the calibration of parameters of the INCA nitrogen in catchment model is explored and quantified. A virtual catchment was designed by running INCA with a known set of parameters, and field "measurements" were selected from the model run output. Then, using these measurements and the Shuffled Complex Evolution Metropolis algorithm (SCEM-UA), four of the INCA model parameters describing N transformations in the soil were optimised, while the measurement uncertainty was increased in subsequent steps. Considering measurement uncertainty typical for N field studies, none of the synthesised datasets contained sufficient information to identify the model parameters with a reasonable degree of confidence. Parameter equifinality occurred, leading to considerable uncertainty in model parameter values and in modelled N concentrations and fluxes. Fortunately, combining the datasets in a multi-objective calibration was found to be effective in dealing with these equifinality problems. With the right choice of calibration measurements, multi-objective calibrations resulted in lower parameter uncertainty. The methodology applied in this study, using a virtual catchment free of model errors, is proposed as a useful tool foregoing the application of a N model or the design of a N monitoring program. For an already gauged catchment, a virtual study can provide a point of reference for the minimum uncertainty associated with a model application. When setting up a monitoring program, it can help to decide what and when to measure. Numerical experiments indicate that for a forested, N-saturated catchment, a fortnightly sampling of NO3 and NH4 concentrations in stream water may be the most cost-effective monitoring strategy.
Keywords: INCA, nitrogen model, parameter uncertainty, multi-objective calibration, virtual catchment, experimental design