Computing water flow through complex landscapes – Part 1: Incorporating depressions in flow routing using FlowFill
Calculating flow routing across a landscape is a routine process in geomorphology, hydrology, planetary science, and soil and water conservation. Flow-routing calculations often require a preprocessing step to remove depressions from a DEM to create a “flow-routing surface” that can host a continuous, integrated drainage network. However, real landscapes contain natural depressions that trap water. These are an important part of the hydrologic system and should be represented in flow-routing surfaces. Historically, depressions (or “pits”) in DEMs have been viewed as data errors, but the rapid expansion of high-resolution, high-precision DEM coverage increases the likelihood that depressions are real-world features. To address this long-standing problem of emerging significance, we developed FlowFill, an algorithm that routes a prescribed amount of runoff across the surface in order to flood depressions if enough water is available. This mass-conserving approach typically floods smaller depressions and those in wet areas, integrating drainage across them, while permitting internal drainage and disruptions to hydrologic connectivity. We present results from two sample study areas to which we apply a range of uniform initial runoff depths and report the resulting filled and unfilled depressions, the drainage network structure, and the required compute time. For the reach- to watershed-scale examples that we ran, FlowFill compute times ranged from approximately 1 to 30 min, with compute times per cell of 0.0001 to 0.006 s.