When does higher spatial resolution rainfall information improve streamflow simulation? An evaluation using 3620 flood events
Precipitation is the key factor controlling the high-frequency hydrological response in catchments, and streamflow simulation is thus dependent on the way rainfall is represented in a hydrological model. A characteristic that distinguishes distributed from lumped models is the ability to explicitly represent the spatial variability of precipitation. Although the literature on this topic is abundant, the results are contrasting and sometimes contradictory. This paper investigates the impact of spatial rainfall on runoff generation to better understand the conditions where higher-resolution rainfall information improves streamflow simulations. In this study, we used the rainfall reanalysis developed by Météo-France over the whole country of France at 1 km and 1 h resolution over a 10 yr period. A hydrological model was applied in the lumped mode (a single spatial unit) and in the semidistributed mode using three unit sizes of subcatchments. The model was evaluated against observed streamflow data using split-sample tests on a large set of French catchments (181) representing a variety of sizes and climate conditions. The results were analyzed by catchment classes and types of rainfall events based on the spatial variability of precipitation. The evaluation clearly showed different behaviors. The lumped model performed as well as the semidistributed model in western France, where catchments are under oceanic climate conditions with quite spatially uniform precipitation fields. By contrast, higher resolution in precipitation inputs significantly improved the simulated streamflow dynamics and accuracy in southern France (Cévennes and Mediterranean regions) for catchments in which precipitation fields were identified to be highly variable in space. In all regions, natural variability allows for contradictory examples to be found, showing that analyzing a large number of events over varied catchments is warranted.