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Catchment scale sensitivity and uncertainty in water quality modelling

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>30/10/2016
<mark>Journal</mark>Hydrological Processes
Issue number22
Number of pages15
Pages (from-to)4004-4018
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date30/08/16
<mark>Original language</mark>English


In this paper, we assess the performance of the catchment model SIMulated CATchment model (SIMCAT), to predict nitrate and soluble reactive phosphorus concentrations against four monitoring regimes with different spatial and temporal sampling frequencies. The Generalised Likelihood Uncertainty Estimation (GLUE) uncertainty framework is used, along with a general sensitivity analysis to understand relative parameter sensitivity. Improvements to model calibration are explored by introducing more detailed process representation using the Integrated Catchments model (INCA) water quality model, driven by the European hydrological predictions for the environment model. The results show how targeted sampling of headwater watercourses upstream of point discharges is essential for calibrating diffuse loads and can exert a strong influence on the whole‐catchment model performance. Further downstream, if the point discharges and loads are accurately represented, then the improvement in the catchment‐scale model performance is relatively small as more calibration points are added or frequency is increased.

The higher‐order, dynamic model integrated catchments model of phosphorus dynamics, which incorporates sediment and biotic interaction, resulted in improved whole‐catchment performance over SIMCAT, although there are still large epistemic uncertainties from land‐phase export coefficients and runoff. However, the very large sampling errors in routine monitoring make it difficult to invest confidence in the modelling, especially because we know phosphorous transport to be very episodic and driven by high flow conditions for which there are few samples. The environmental modelling community seems to have been stuck in this position for some time, and whilst it is useful to use an uncertainty framework to highlight these issues, it has not widely been adopted, perhaps because there is no clear mechanism to allow uncertainties to influence investment decisions. This raises the question as to whether it might better place a cost on uncertainty and use this to drive more data collection or improved models, before making investment decisions concerning, for example, mitigation strategies.