Using altimetry observations combined with GRACE to select parameter sets of a hydrological model in a data-scarce region

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Limited availability of ground measurements in the vast majority of river basins world-wide increases the value of alternative data sources such as satellite observations in hydrological modelling. This study investigates the potential of using remotely sensed river water levels, i.e. altimetry observations, from multiple satellite missions to identify parameter sets for a hydrological model in the semi-arid Luangwa River basin in Zambia. A distributed process-based rainfall-runoff model with sub-grid process heterogeneity was developed and run on a daily timescale for the time period 2002 to 2016. As a benchmark, feasible model parameter sets were identified using traditional model calibration with observed river discharge data. For the parameter identification using remote sensing, data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) were used in a first step to restrict the feasible parameter sets based on the seasonal fluctuations in total water storage. Next, three alternative ways of further restricting feasible model parameter sets using satellite altimetry time series from 18 different locations along the river were compared. In the calibrated benchmark case, daily river flows were reproduced relatively well with an optimum Nash-Sutcliffe efficiency of ENS,Q = 0.78 (5/95th percentiles of all feasible solutions ENS,Q,5/95 = 0.61-0.75). When using only GRACE observations to restrict the parameter space, assuming no discharge observations are available, an optimum of ENS,Q =-1.4 (ENS,Q,5/95 =-2.3-0.38) with respect to discharge was obtained. The direct use of altimetry-based river levels frequently led to overestimated flows and poorly identified feasible parameter sets (ENS,Q,5/95 =-2.9-0.10). Similarly, converting modelled discharge into water levels using rating curves in the form of power relationships with two additional free calibration parameters per virtual station resulted in an overestimation of the discharge and poorly identified feasible parameter sets (ENS,Q,5/95 =-2.6-0.25). However, accounting for river geometry proved to be highly effective. This included using river cross-section and gradient information extracted from global high-resolution terrain data available on Google Earth and applying the Strickler-Manning equation to convert modelled discharge into water levels. Many parameter sets identified with this method reproduced the hydrograph and multiple other signatures of discharge reasonably well, with an optimum of ENS,Q = 0.60 (ENS,Q,5/95 =-0.31-0.50). It was further shown that more accurate river cross-section data improved the water-level simulations, modelled rating curve, and discharge simulations during intermediate and low flows at the basin outlet where detailed on-site cross-section information was available. Also, increasing the number of virtual stations used for parameter selection in the calibration period considerably improved the model performance in a spatial split-sample validation. The results provide robust evidence that in the absence of directly observed discharge data for larger rivers in data-scarce regions, altimetry data from multiple virtual stations combined with GRACE observations have the potential to fill this gap when combined with readily available estimates of river geometry, thereby allowing a step towards more reliable hydrological modelling in poorly gauged or ungauged basins.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3331-3359
Number of pages29
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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