Articles | Volume 4, issue 3
Research article
30 Sep 2016
Research article |  | 30 Sep 2016

The sensitivity of landscape evolution models to spatial and temporal rainfall resolution

Tom J. Coulthard and Christopher J. Skinner

Abstract. Climate is one of the main drivers for landscape evolution models (LEMs), yet its representation is often basic with values averaged over long time periods and frequently lumped to the same value for the whole basin. Clearly, this hides the heterogeneity of precipitation – but what impact does this averaging have on erosion and deposition, topography, and the final shape of LEM landscapes? This paper presents results from the first systematic investigation into how the spatial and temporal resolution of precipitation affects LEM simulations of sediment yields and patterns of erosion and deposition. This is carried out by assessing the sensitivity of the CAESAR-Lisflood LEM to different spatial and temporal precipitation resolutions – as well as how this interacts with different-size drainage basins over short and long timescales. A range of simulations were carried out, varying rainfall from 0.25 h  ×  5 km to 24 h  ×  Lump resolution over three different-sized basins for 30-year durations. Results showed that there was a sensitivity to temporal and spatial resolution, with the finest leading to > 100 % increases in basin sediment yields. To look at how these interactions manifested over longer timescales, several simulations were carried out to model a 1000-year period. These showed a systematic bias towards greater erosion in uplands and deposition in valley floors with the finest spatial- and temporal-resolution data. Further tests showed that this effect was due solely to the data resolution, not orographic factors. Additional research indicated that these differences in sediment yield could be accounted for by adding a compensation factor to the model sediment transport law. However, this resulted in notable differences in the topographies generated, especially in third-order and higher streams. The implications of these findings are that uncalibrated past and present LEMs using lumped and time-averaged climate inputs may be under-predicting basin sediment yields as well as introducing spatial biases through under-predicting erosion in first-order streams but over-predicting erosion in second- and third-order streams and valley floor areas. Calibrated LEMs may give correct sediment yields, but patterns of erosion and deposition will be different and the calibration may not be correct for changing climates. This may have significant impacts on the modelled basin profile and shape from long-timescale simulations.

Short summary
Landscape evolution models are driven by climate or precipitation data. We show that higher-resolution data lead to greater basin sediment yields (> 100 % increase) despite minimal changes in hydrological outputs. Spatially, simulations over 1000 years show finer-resolution data lead to a systematic bias of more erosion in headwater streams with more deposition in valley floors. This could have important implications for the long-term predictions of past and present landscape evolution models.