Investigating sources of variability in closing the terrestrial water balance with remote sensing

Michailovsky, Claire I.; Coerver, Bert; Mul, Marloes; Jewitt, Graham

Remote sensing (RS) data are becoming an increasingly important source of information for water resource management as they provide spatially distributed data on water availability and use. However, in order to guide appropriate use of the data, it is important to understand the impact of the uncertainties of RS data on water resource studies. Previous studies have shown that the degree of closure of the water balance from remote sensing data is highly variable across basins and that different RS products vary in their levels of accuracy depending on climatological and geographical conditions.

In this paper, we analyzed the water-balance-derived runoff from global RS products for 931 catchments across the globe. We compared time series of runoff estimated through a simplified water balance equation using three precipitation (CHIRPS, GPM, and TRMM), five evapotranspiration (MODIS, SSEBop, GLEAM, CMRSET, and SEBS), and three water storage change (GRACE-CSR, GRACE-JPL, and GRACE-GFZ) RS datasets with monthly in situ discharge data for the period 2003–2016. Results were analyzed through the lens of 10 quantifiable catchment characteristics in order to investigate correlations between catchment characteristics and the quality of RS-based water balance estimates of runoff and whether specific products performed better than others under certain conditions.

The median Nash–Sutcliffe efficiency (NSE) for all gauges and all product combinations was inline-formula−0.02, and only 44.9 % of the time series reached a positive NSE. A positive NSE could be obtained for 73.7 % of stations with at least one product combination, while the overall best-performing product combination was positive for 58.4 % of stations. This confirms previous findings that the best-performing products cannot be globally established. When investigating the results by catchment characteristic, all combinations tended to show similar correlations between catchment characteristics and the quality of estimated runoff, with the exception of combinations using MODIS evapotranspiration, for which the correlation was frequently reversed. The combinations with the GPM precipitation product generally performed worse than the CHIRPS and TRMM data. However, this can be attributed to the fact that the GPM data are available at higher latitudes compared to the other products, where performance is generally poorer. When removing high-latitude stations, this difference was eliminated, and GPM and TRMM showed similar performance.

The results show the highest positive correlation between highly seasonal rainfall and runoff NSE. On the other hand, increasing snow cover, altitude, and latitude decreased the ability of the RS products to close the water balance. The catchment's dominant climate zone was also found to be correlated with time series performance, with the tropical areas providing the highest (median NSE inline-formula= 0.11) and arid areas the lowest (median NSE inline-formula=inline-formula−0.09) NSE values. No correlation was found between catchment area and runoff NSE. The results highlight the importance of further studies on the uncertainties of the different data products and how these interact when combining them, as well as of new approaches to using the data rather than simple water-balance-type approaches. Efforts to improve specific satellite products can also be better targeted using the results of this study.

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Michailovsky, Claire I. / Coerver, Bert / Mul, Marloes / et al: Investigating sources of variability in closing the terrestrial water balance with remote sensing. 2023. Copernicus Publications.

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