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Hydrology and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Volume 21, issue 6
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 21, 2817-2841, 2017
https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-21-2817-2017
© Author(s) 2017. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 21, 2817-2841, 2017
https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-21-2817-2017
© Author(s) 2017. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Research article 09 Jun 2017

Research article | 09 Jun 2017

Unravelling abiotic and biotic controls on the seasonal water balance using data-driven dimensionless diagnostics

Simon Paul Seibert1, Conrad Jackisch1, Uwe Ehret1, Laurent Pfister2, and Erwin Zehe1 Simon Paul Seibert et al.
  • 1Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Institute for Water and River Basin Management, Chair of Hydrology, Kaiserstrasse 12, 76131 Karlsruhe, Germany
  • 2Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, Department Environmental Research and Innovation, Catchment and Eco-hydrology research group, 5 avenue des Hauts-Fourneaux, 4362 Esch/Alzette, Luxembourg

Abstract. The baffling diversity of runoff generation processes, alongside our sketchy understanding of how physiographic characteristics control fundamental hydrological functions of water collection, storage, and release, continue to pose major research challenges in catchment hydrology. Here, we propose innovative data-driven diagnostic signatures for overcoming the prevailing status quo in catchment inter-comparison. More specifically, we present dimensionless double mass curves (dDMC) which allow inference of information on runoff generation and the water balance at the seasonal and annual timescales. By separating the vegetation and winter periods, dDMC furthermore provide information on the role of biotic and abiotic controls in seasonal runoff formation.

A key aspect we address in this paper is the derivation of dimensionless expressions of fluxes which ensure the comparability of the signatures in space and time. We achieve this by using the limiting factors of a hydrological process as a scaling reference. We show that different references result in different diagnostics. As such we define two kinds of dDMC which allow us to derive seasonal runoff coefficients and to characterize dimensionless streamflow release as a function of the potential renewal rate of the soil storage. We expect these signatures for storage controlled seasonal runoff formation to remain invariant, as long as the ratios of release over supply and supply over storage capacity develop similarly in different catchments.

We test the proposed methods by applying them to an operational data set comprising 22 catchments (12–166km2) from different environments in southern Germany and hydrometeorological data from 4 hydrological years. The diagnostics are used to compare the sites and to reveal the dominant controls on runoff formation.

The key findings are that dDMC are meaningful signatures for catchment runoff formation at the seasonal to annual scale and that the type of scaling strongly influences the diagnostic potential of the dDMC. Adding discrimination between growing season and winter period was of fundamental importance and easy to implement by means of a temperature-index model. More specifically, temperature aggregates explain over 70% of the variability of the seasonal summer runoff coefficients. The results also show that the soil topographic index, i.e. the product of topographic gradient and saturated hydraulic conductivity, is significantly correlated with winter runoff coefficients, whereas the topographic gradient and the hydraulic conductivity alone are not. We conclude that proxies for gradients and resistances should be interpreted as a pair. Lastly, the dDMC concept reveals memory effects between summer and winter runoff regimes that are not relevant in spring between the transition from winter to summer.

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Short summary
Runoff production mechanisms and their corresponding physiographic controls continue to pose major research challenges in catchment hydrology. We propose innovative data-driven diagnostic signatures for overcoming the prevailing status quo in inter-comparison studies. Specifically, we present dimensionless double mass curves which allow us to infer information on runoff generation at the seasonal and annual timescales. The method is based on commonly available data.
Runoff production mechanisms and their corresponding physiographic controls continue to pose...
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