The importance of aspect for modelling the hydrological response in a glacier catchment in Central Asia

Hongkai Gao*, Yongjian Ding, Qiudong Zhao, Markus Hrachowitz, Hubert H.G. Savenije

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


Understanding how explicit consideration of topographic information influences hydrological model performance and upscaling in glacier dominated catchments remains underexplored. In this study, the Urumqi glacier no. 1 catchment in northwest China, with 52% of the area covered by glaciers, was selected as study site. A conceptual glacier-hydrological model was developed and tested to systematically, simultaneously, and robustly reproduce the hydrograph, separate the discharge into contributions from glacier and nonglacier parts of the catchment, and establish estimates of the annual glacier mass balance, the annual equilibrium line altitude, and the daily catchment snow water equivalent. This was done by extending and adapting a recently proposed landscape-based semidistributed conceptual hydrological model (FLEX-Topo) to represent glacier and snowmelt processes. The adapted model, FLEXG, allows to explicitly account for the influence of topography, that is, elevation and aspect, on the distribution of temperature and precipitation and thus on melt dynamics. It is shown that the model can not only reproduce long-term runoff observations but also variations in glacier and snow cover. Furthermore, FLEXG was successfully transferred and up-scaled to a larger catchment exclusively by adjusting the areal proportions of elevation and aspect without the need for further calibration. This underlines the value of topographic information to meaningfully represent the dominant hydrological processes in the region and is further exacerbated by comparing the model to a model formulation that does not account for differences in aspect (FLEXG,nA) and which, in spite of satisfactorily reproducing the observed hydrograph, does not capture the influence of spatial variability of snow and ice, which as a consequence reduces model transferability. This highlights the importance of accounting for topography and landscape heterogeneity in conceptual hydrological models in mountainous and snow-, and glacier-dominated regions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2842-2859
Number of pages18
JournalHydrological Processes: an international journal
Issue number16
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jul 2017


  • FLEX-Topo
  • glacier melt
  • temperature-index model
  • topography
  • Urumqi no.1 glacier


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