How much complexity is warranted in a rainfall-runoff model?


  • A. J. Jakeman,

  • G. M. Hornberger


Development of mathematical models relating the precipitation incident upon a catchment to the streamflow emanating from the catchment has been a major focus of surface water hydrology for decades. Generally, values for parameters in such models must be selected so that runoff calculated from the model “matches” recorded runoff from some historical period. Despite the fact that the physics governing the path of a drop of water through a catchment to the stream involves complex relationships, evidence indicates that the information content in a rainfall-runoff record is sufficient to support models of only very limited complexity. This begs the question of what limits the observed data place on the allowable complexity of rainfall-runoff models. Time series techniques are applied for estimating transfer functions to determine how many parameters are appropriate to describe the relationship between precipitation and streamflow in the case where data on only precipitation, air temperature, and streamflow are available. Statistics from an “information matrix” provide the clues necessary for determining allowable model complexity. Time series models are developed for seven catchments with widely varying physical characteristics in different temperate climatic regimes to demonstrate the method. It is found that after modulating the measured rainfall using a nonlinear loss function, the rainfall-runoff response of all catchments is well represented using a linear model. Also, for all catchments a two-component linear model with four parameters is the model of choice. The two components can be interpreted as defining a “quick flow” and “slow flow” response of the given catchment. The method therefore provides a statistically rigorous way to separate hydrographs and parameterize their response behavior. The ability to construct reliable transfer function models for describing the rainfall-runoff process offers a new approach to investigate empirically the controls of physical catchment descriptors, land use change, climate change, etc., on the dynamic response of catchments through the extensive analysis of historical data sets.