Catchments as simple dynamical systems: A case study on methods and data requirements for parameter identification

L. A. Melsen*, A. J. Teuling, S. W. Van Berkum, P. J.J.F. Torfs, R. Uijlenhoet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


In many rainfall-runoff models, at least some calibration of model parameters has to take place. Especially for ungauged or poorly gauged basins this can be problematic, because there is little or no data available for calibration. A possible solution to overcome the problems caused by data scarcity is to set up a measurement campaign for a limited time period. In this study, we determine the minimum amount of data required to determine robust parameter values for a simple model with two parameters. The model is constructed such that the parameters can be determined not only with automatic calibration, but also by recession analysis and a priori from Boussinesq theory. The model has been applied to a research catchment in Switzerland. For automatic calibration and recession analysis, one season (5 months) is found to be sufficient to give robust parameters for simulation of high flows over the full observation period. For automatic calibration, this should be the season with the highest precipitation, for recession analysis the season with least evapotranspiration. The Boussinesq equation is able to give good parameter estimates for modeling high flows, but detailed in situ knowledge of the catchment is required. Automatic calibration outperforms recession analysis and Boussinesq theory by far when it comes to parameter estimation with a focus on prediction of low flows. It was shown that a single set of parameters cannot simultaneously describe high and low flows with a reasonable accuracy, suggesting that more than two parameters are needed to characterize subsurface properties. Key Points Automatic calibration, recession analysis, and Boussinesq theory are compared Automatic calibration leads to the highest model efficiencies One season of data is needed for robust parameter estimation

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5577-5596
Number of pages20
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Boussinesq theory
  • calibration
  • data requirements
  • parameter identification
  • recession analysis
  • ungauged basins


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