Standard Article

131 Model Calibration and Uncertainty Estimation

Part 11. Rainfall-Runoff Modeling

  1. Hoshin V Gupta1,
  2. Keith J Beven2,
  3. Thorsten Wagener1,3

Published Online: 15 APR 2006

DOI: 10.1002/0470848944.hsa138

Encyclopedia of Hydrological Sciences

Encyclopedia of Hydrological Sciences

How to Cite

Gupta, H. V., Beven, K. J. and Wagener, T. 2006. Model Calibration and Uncertainty Estimation. Encyclopedia of Hydrological Sciences. 11:131.

Author Information

  1. 1

    The University of Arizona, Department of Hydrology and Water Resources, Tucson, AZ, US

  2. 2

    Lancaster University, Department of Environmental Science and Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster, UK

  3. 3

    Pennsylvania State University, Now at Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University Park, PA, US

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 APR 2006


All rainfall-runoff models are, by definition, simplifications of the real-world system under investigation. The model components are aggregated descriptions of real-world hydrologic processes. One consequence of this is that the model parameters often do not represent directly measurable entities, but must be estimated using measurements of the system response through a process known as model calibration. The objective of this calibration process is to obtain a model with the following characteristics: (i) the input-state-output behavior of the model is consistent with the measurements of catchment behavior, (ii) the model predictions are accurate (i.e. they have negligible bias) and precise (i.e. the prediction uncertainty is relatively small), and (iii) the model structure and behavior are consistent with current hydrologic understanding of reality. This article describes the historic development leading to current views on model calibration, and the algorithms and techniques that have been developed for estimating parameters, thereby enabling the model to mimic the behavior of the hydrologic system. Manual techniques as well as automatic algorithms are addressed. The automatic approaches range from purely random techniques, to local and global search algorithms. An overview of multiobjective and recursive algorithms is also presented. Although it would be desirable to reduce the total output prediction error to zero (i.e. the difference between observed and simulated system behavior) this is generally impossible owing to the unavoidable uncertainties inherent in any rainfall-runoff modeling procedure. These uncertainties stem mainly from the inability of calibration procedures to uniquely identify a single optimal parameter set, from measurement errors associated with the system input and output, and from model structural errors arising from the aggregation of real-world processes into a mathematical model. Some commonly used approaches to estimate these uncertainties and their impacts on the model predictions are discussed. The article ends with a brief discussion about the current status of calibration and how well we are able to represent the effects of uncertainty in the modeling process, and some potential directions.


  • rainfall-runoff modeling;
  • model calibration;
  • model identification;
  • optimization;
  • uncertainty estimation;
  • parameter uncertainty;
  • structural uncertainty;
  • data uncertainty