Evaluation of random forests for short-term daily streamflow forecasting in rainfall- and snowmelt-driven watersheds

Pham, Leo Triet; Luo, Lifeng; Finley, Andrew

In the past decades, data-driven machine-learning (ML) models have emerged as promising tools for short-term streamflow forecasting. Among other qualities, the popularity of ML models for such applications is due to their relative ease in implementation, less strict distributional assumption, and competitive computational and predictive performance. Despite the encouraging results, most applications of ML for streamflow forecasting have been limited to watersheds in which rainfall is the major source of runoff. In this study, we evaluate the potential of random forests (RFs), a popular ML method, to make streamflow forecasts at 1 d of lead time at 86 watersheds in the Pacific Northwest. These watersheds cover diverse climatic conditions and physiographic settings and exhibit varied contributions of rainfall and snowmelt to their streamflow. Watersheds are classified into three hydrologic regimes based on the timing of center-of-annual flow volume: rainfall-dominated, transient, and snowmelt-dominated. RF performance is benchmarked against naïve and multiple linear regression (MLR) models and evaluated using four criteria: coefficient of determination, root mean squared error, mean absolute error, and Kling–Gupta efficiency (KGE). Model evaluation scores suggest that the RF performs better in snowmelt-driven watersheds compared to rainfall-driven watersheds. The largest improvements in forecasts compared to benchmark models are found among rainfall-driven watersheds. RF performance deteriorates with increases in catchment slope and soil sandiness. We note disagreement between two popular measures of RF variable importance and recommend jointly considering these measures with the physical processes under study. These and other results presented provide new insights for effective application of RF-based streamflow forecasting.

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Pham, Leo Triet / Luo, Lifeng / Finley, Andrew: Evaluation of random forests for short-term daily streamflow forecasting in rainfall- and snowmelt-driven watersheds. 2021. Copernicus Publications.

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