10 Mar 2023
 | 10 Mar 2023
Status: a revised version of this preprint is currently under review for the journal HESS.

Elasticity curves describe streamflow sensitivity to precipitation across the entire flow distribution

Bailey J. Anderson, Manuela I. Brunner, Louise J. Slater, and Simon J. Dadson

Abstract. Streamflow elasticity is a simple approximation of how responsive a river is to precipitation. It is represented as a ratio of the expected percentage change in streamflow for a 1 % change in precipitation. Typically estimated for the annual median streamflow, we here propose a new concept in which streamflow elasticity is estimated across the full range of streamflow percentiles in a large-sample context. This “elasticity curve” can be used to develop a more complete depiction of how streamflow responds to precipitation. We find three different elasticity curve types which characterize this relationship at the annual and seasonal timescales in the USA, based on two statistical modelling approaches, a panel regression which facilitates causal inference and a single catchment model which allows for consideration of static attributes. Type A describes catchments where low flows are the least and high flows are the most responsive to precipitation. The majority of catchments at the annual, winter, and fall timescales exhibit this behavior. Type B describes catchments where the response is relatively consistent across the flow distribution. At the seasonal timescale, many catchments experience a consistent level of response across the flow regime. This is especially true in snow-fed catchments during cold months, when the actual elasticity skews towards zero for all flow percentiles while precipitation is held in storage. Consistent response is also seen across the majority of the country during spring when streamflow is comparatively stable and in summer when evaporation demand is high and soil moisture is low. Finally, Type C describes catchments where low flows are the most responsive to precipitation change. These catchments are dominated by highly flashy low flow behavior. We show that the curve type varies separately from the magnitude of the elasticity. Finally, we demonstrate that available water storage is likely the key control which determines curve type.

Bailey J. Anderson et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on hess-2022-407', Keirnan Fowler, 12 Jun 2023
    • AC1: 'Reply on RC1', Bailey Anderson, 05 Jul 2023
  • RC2: 'Comment on hess-2022-407', Anonymous Referee #2, 04 Jul 2023
    • AC2: 'Reply on RC2', Bailey Anderson, 05 Jul 2023

Bailey J. Anderson et al.

Model code and software

Elasticity_curve_analysis: initial release of code for generating and analysing elasticity curve data Bailey Anderson

Bailey J. Anderson et al.


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Short summary
"Elasticity" refers to how much the amount of water in a river fluctuates with precipitation. We usually calculate this using the average streamflow values, however, river catchments interact with runoff in ways which differ in drier and wetter periods. Here, we look at how elasticity varies across the streamflow distribution and show that not only does low and high streamflow respond differently to precipitation change, but that these differences vary with water storage availability.