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The influence of elevation error on the morphometrics of channel networks extracted from DEMs and the implications for hydrological modelling

Lindsay, John B., Evans, Martin G.
Hydrological processes 2008 v.22 no.11 pp. 1588-1603
basins, digital elevation models, floods, hydrologic models, runoff, streams, uncertainty, United Kingdom
Stream network morphometrics have been used frequently in environmental applications and are embedded in several hydrological models. This is because channel network geometry partly controls the runoff response of a basin. Network indices are often measured from channels that are mapped from digital elevation models (DEMs) using automated procedures. Simulations were used in this paper to study the influence of elevation error on the reliability of estimates of several common morphometrics, including stream order, the bifurcation, length, area and slope ratios, stream magnitude, network diameter, the flood magnitude and timing parameters of the geomorphological instantaneous unit hydrograph (GIUH) and the network width function. DEMs of three UK basins, ranging from high to low relief, were used for the analyses. The findings showed that moderate elevation error (RMSE of 1·8 m) can result in significant uncertainty in DEM-mapped network morphometrics and that this uncertainty can be expressed in complex ways. For example, estimates of the bifurcation, length and area ratios and the flood magnitude and timing parameters of the GIUH each displayed multimodal frequency distributions, i.e. two or more estimated values were highly likely. Furthermore, these preferential estimates were wide ranging relative to the ranges typically observed for these indices. The wide-ranging estimates of the two GIUH parameters represented significant uncertainty in the shape of the unit hydrograph. Stream magnitude, network diameter and the network width function were found to be highly sensitive to elevation error because of the difficulty in mapping low-magnitude links. Uncertainties in the width function were found to increase with distance from outlet, implying that hydrological models that use network width contain greater uncertainty in the shape of the falling limb of the hydrograph. In light of these findings, care should be exercised when interpreting the results of analyses based on DEM-mapped stream networks.