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DEALING WITH UNCERTAINTY OF HYDROLOGICAL FORECASTS

IN THE BAVARIAN DANUBE CATCHMENT


Stefan Laurent1, Uwe Ehret, Inke Meyer1, Katja Moritz1, Alfons Vogelbacher1
1

Flood Information Centre, Bavarian Environment Agency, Munich, Germany


Water Management Agency, Kempten, Germany
stefan.laurent@lfu.bayern.de

Abstract
Hydrological forecasts have become an important part of the flood warning scheme,
since they are calculated for all river basins in the Bavarian Danube Catchment.
Experiences with published forecasts during former flood events have shown the
need for communicating the uncertainties associated with these forecasts to the civil
protection and the public. Therefore methods for quantifying and representing these
uncertainties have been developed and incorporated in the flood warning routine. A
newly developed approach varies the dominant factors of uncertainty like the
meteorological forecast in headwaters by including forecast ensembles. The
remaining factors are represented by a static uncertainty measure derived from
offline analysis and combined with the former. The total uncertainty is represented by
the 10% and 90% exceedance probabilities published together with a single
deterministic forecast via internet.
Keywords: flood forecast, uncertainty, rainfall-runoff simulation, ensemble, flood
warning, Bavarian Danube Catchment.
1 INTRODUCTION
Hydrological forecast in the Bavarian Danube Catchment
Now-a-days hydrological forecasts have become an important part of the flood
warning scheme in the Bavarian Danube Catchment, since its total area is covered
by hydrological models (Hangen-Broderson, 2008).
Flood forecasts for all tributaries are calculated with the rainfall-runoff model LARSIM
(Ludwig & Bremicker, 2006). Each model area covers an area between 1,000 and
10,000 km and is either divided into a regular grid of one by one kilometre or into an
irregular collection of subareas. The conceptual model LARSIM is mostly used in the
event-driven mode simulating the runoff for the last few days and up to three days in
the future. Hourly data of precipitation, snowmelt and runoff as well as meteorological
forecasts serve as input. The precipitation forecasts are provided by different
meteorological organisations in intervals ranging from 3 hours to one day and have
different spatiotemporal extents (table 1). All the mentioned forecasts deliver
precipitation, some of them also other meteorological data like air temperature, wind
velocity or global radiation that can be used for simulating snowmelt. Snowmelt itself
is calculated by the model SNOW of the German Weather Service and directly used
within LARSIM. The model output of COSMO-LEPS (Walser, 2005) is an ensemble
with 16 members.

Table 1. Meteorological forecasts available in the Bavarian Danube Catchment


Name
COSMO-DE
COSMO-EU
COSMO-LEPS
SNOW
GME
ALMO
ALADIN
GFS
MOS

Organisation
Deutscher Wetterdienst
Deutscher Wetterdienst
Deutscher Wetterdienst
Deutscher Wetterdienst
Deutscher Wetterdienst
MeteoSwiss
ZAMG, Austria
NOAA, United States
meteomedia, Switzerland

Grid size
Horizon
3 km
21 h
7 km
78 h
10 km
132 h
3 km 42 or 72 h
40 km
174 h
7 km
72 h
10 km
48 h
40 km
180 h
station based
96 h

Interval
3h
6h
daily
6h
12 h
12 h
12 h
6h
daily

Beside the afore mentioned runoff-rainfall models, hydrodynamic models like the
model WAVOS (Wilke & Rademacher, 2002) for the Danube simulate the flood
routing in the major rivers. Along the rivers Lech, Inn and the lower Bavarian Danube
the model FLORIS 2000 (Reichel, 2001) is used. The latter also includes standard
operating regulations of the run-of-river power stations.
The hydrological forecasts are calculated daily on business days and more frequently
during flooding periods in five regional Flood Forecast Centres. The results, forecasts
for around 600 gauge stations in entire Bavaria, can be accessed by the decision
makers within the Bavarian Water Management Authority. Additionally, the forecasts
of about 100 selected gauging stations are published in the web presence for a
horizon of 6 to 24 hours depending on the catchment area (www.hnd.bayern.de).
Purposes of computing uncertainty of hydrological forecasts
Experiences with published forecasts during former flood events have shown the
need for communicating the uncertainty associated with hydrological forecasts to the
public and the responsible persons in civil protection. Expectations on the reliability of
flood forecasts are high. Publishing only one forecast as deterministic forecast with
one value at a given time even raises these expectations by pretending to be exact.
Therefore, one aim of computing uncertainty is to publish it along with the
corresponding forecast. The resulting illustration should make the numeric forecast
less absolute for the average user and communicate the probability of a certain water
level to be reached (see section 4).
For the advanced user like decision makers in the water management authority the
published uncertainty should furthermore serve as a tool for better risk assessment.
For example, the person in charge of operating a flood control basin can then base
his decisions on probabilistic numbers in addition to the deterministic forecast instead
of only on the latter. By judging what probability threshold should be taken into
account the responsibility for operators increases. Therefore it is very important to
teach users how to interpret the published forecasts, especially the probabilistic part.
Understanding the sources of uncertainty and their meaning also helps improving the
correct usage of published prognostic data. This task is especially important since
compared to the normal weather forecasts, flood forecasts rarely gain the same daily
importance for the average user. Therefore users are mostly lacking personal
experience in evaluating the reliability of hydrological forecasts.

2 SOURCES OF UNCERTAINTY
Input data
As mentioned above, hydrometeorological input data for runoff-simulation consist of
hourly data of precipitation, snowmelt, runoff and meteorological forecasts. Each of
these components bears a particular uncertainty which affects the uncertainty of the
simulation output.
In a lot of cases, especially in headwaters, meteorological forecasts are the most
dominant source of input data uncertainty. Often there are large differences in rainfall
amounts between forecasts originating from different meteorological models and
between the different model runs of the same model. A good example is the rainfall
event in the upper catchment of the river Lech leading to major flooding in August
2005. One day before the event, the model COSMO-EU predicted a total amount of
215 mm precipitation for the whole rainfall event, the model GME 93 mm and the
model GFS 164 mm. The measured precipitation was 169 mm. Figure 1 shows
another example of the impact of different meteorological forecasts on the runoff
forecast for a gauge at the tributary Regen in the Bavarian Forest.
Not only the amount, but also the spatial and temporal distribution can vary between
different forecasts and the measured precipitation affecting the output of the
hydrological model, especially in smaller catchments. Therefore, ensemble forecasts
should be included in the calculation of total output uncertainty to account for the
dynamic uncertainty of the meteorological forecast.

Figure 1. Using all available meteorological forecasts as input into a rainfall-runoff


model for a medium-sized catchment in the Bavarian Forest shows the broad variety
in the resulting forecasts of water level (green lines). The observed water level is
marked blue.
Furthermore, observed hydrometeorological data contribute to input uncertainty. In
Bavaria about 500 precipitation gauging stations provide the hydrological models with
data. Nevertheless these are point observations. The true spatial distribution has to
be estimated. Also, the measurement at the precipitation gauging station is inflicted

with an uncertainty mainly because of wind and evaporation. In addition, it is possible


to use radar-derived precipitation observations for hydrological forecasts. However,
especially in the process of transforming the observed radar reflectivity to rainfall
rate, still large errors occur.
As observed runoff is an important input for hydrological models, its accurate
determination is very important. Most of the gauging stations only measure water
levels though. That way, runoff has to be calculated against water level using a
discharge rating curve based on measured runoff. The latter, however, is rarely
measured during very low or high discharge. Therefore, especially during flood
events, the uncertainty of observed discharge is rather high. Even if the discharge
rating curves are regularly updated and improved, factors like flotsam, ice jam,
erosion, dam failure and so forth may continuously change the relation between
water level and discharge during flood. Improvements can be gained by directly
measuring runoff by e.g. ultrasound or ADCP.
Model simplification
If the forecast horizon lies within the travel time of the flood wave observed upstream,
the runoff forecast is expected to be more accurate due to the single process of flood
routing. Although this applies to most cases, rather great uncertainties can appear in
runoff forecasts even within these shorter forecast horizons. Main reason for this is
the inadequate or missing reproduction of certain hydrological processes in the
rainfall-runoff model. For example, if a meandering river overflows, this results in a
runtime reduction of the channel line. The model LARSIM, however, cannot
reproduce this effect. Furthermore, groundwater-river interactions, which can lead to
significant reductions of the peak runoff in certain areas, cannot be accounted for in
LARSIM.
Estimating model parameters
Model parameter calibration is conducted separately for each catchment on the basis
of three to five historic flood events. Very often the most extreme flood events in the
past cannot be used, because of missing input data. Because of this, model
calibration is often not optimal. It has to be improved and repeated especially after
large floods.
In addition, model parameters can have different values for different hydrological
conditions. So it is reasonable to use different sets of parameters for different
hydrological situations. But again, often there are not enough observed flood events
for each hydrological condition, which can be used for calibration.
Operational practice
Another source of uncertainty is the operation of the hydrological models. Some
parameter and model settings have to be adjusted by the human forecaster
according to the actual hydrological situation.
An example for this is choosing the right time period for optimizing the runoff
coefficient in an operational run. Within this period the simulated runoff is adapted to
the observed runoff by automatically adjusting the runoff coefficient. Different time
periods may lead to different forecast results (figure 2). Another example is the often

lacking information about operational discharge of smaller reservoirs. That way, the
human forecaster has to make an assumption, which also increases the uncertainty
of the model output.

Figure 2. Choosing different time periods for optimizing the runoff coefficient
throughout the model may lead to different forecast results.
Relative influence of the different sources
The relative influence of the different sources of uncertainty depends on different
factors like forecast horizon, meteorological conditions and up- or downstream
location of the catchment. With an increasing forecast horizon the influence of the
uncertainty of the meteorological forecast is increasing. However, during a period
with almost no rainfall predicted the influence of the uncertainty of the meteorological
forecast ought to be very low. In headwater catchments the uncertainty of the
meteorological forecast is more dominant than in downstream catchments. If the
forecast horizon lies within the runtime of the flood wave observed upstream, the
uncertainty of the meteorological forecast has not as much influence as e.g. the
uncertainty resulting from model simplification.
3 ESTIMATING UNCERTAINTY
To consider all the sources of uncertainty mentioned in the previous chapter, the
optimal approach would be to do multiple forecast realizations by randomly varying
all of the sources of uncertainty within their range (Monte Carlo Simulation). The
great drawback, however, is that if this is thoroughly done, the number of forecast
realizations quickly amounts to quantities too large to handle within the time
constraints of an operational environment.
Another operational constraint is that the river systems in Bavaria are tiled into a
series of subcatchments for operational forecasting. The Bavarian Danube
Catchment, for example, consists of 12 individually simulated catchments. The
hydrological forecasts from the headwater catchments are calculated first and then
passed to the next downstream catchment and so forth. In such a series calculation,
for the sake of coherence, the runoff forecast calculated in a catchment and the
runoff forecast from the headwater catchment must be based on the same data (e.g.
the same rainfall forecast). In operational forecasting, this also limits the number of
Monte Carlo simulations that can be handled.

Due to the operational constraints outlined above, a relatively straightforward


approach for the consideration of forecast uncertainty has been applied in Bavaria so
far. Long time series of former, archived flood forecasts have been compared to
gauge observations calculating the relative error for each time step within the
forecast horizon (Vogelbacher, 2007). From the error distribution obtained for each
gauge, the relative error on the 10% and 90% exceedance probability level is used
for calculating the uncertainty on each new forecast. This approach, however, does
not take into consideration the dynamic nature of forecast uncertainty, which may
vary with time.
Therefore, a new approach has been developed which is presented below. It varies
the dominant factors of uncertainty and represents the rest by a static uncertainty
measure derived from offline analysis. As this is work in progress, only preliminary
results can be presented. First, the combination procedure is explained, which differs
between up- and downstream catchments. Then, the type and the calculation of the
static uncertainty measure are explained in detail.
In headwater catchments, experience shows that the dominating source of
uncertainty is rainfall forecast. However, its magnitude may vary with the current
weather situation: Some weather patterns are easier to forecast than others. In the
first case, the spread of the different rainfall forecasts available is much less than in
the latter case. It is therefore reasonable to leave this source of uncertainty dynamic
and represent the other sources with a static uncertainty value. The two types are
combined as follows (see also figure 3):
1. With all available rainfall forecasts, calculate an ensemble of runoff forecasts.
The spread varies with the similarity or dissimilarity of the rainfall forecasts.
2. Add the static uncertainty distribution to each time step of each runoff forecast
by randomly sampling the empirical error distribution (e.g. 100 times). The
uncertainty distribution is a function of forecast horizon, i.e. the uncertainty
range widens with increasing forecast horizon.
3. For each forecast time step, calculate the empirical uncertainty distribution
and select the value on the desired uncertainty level (e.g. 10% and 90%
exceedance probability). An example: If four runoff forecasts have been
calculated and for each forecast time step, 100 samples are drawn from the
static uncertainty distribution, 400 forecasts values are available for the given
forecast time step. They are ordered by magnitude, with the exceedance
probability of the highest value being zero and the exceedance probability of
the lowest being one. From the range of ordered runoff forecast values, pick
the ones on the desired exceedance probability levels. This is the uncertainty
range for the current forecast time step.

Figure 3: Calculating the uncertainty distribution in a headwater catchment


In downstream catchments, the relative influence of the rainfall forecast especially for
a short forecast horizon is smaller. Here, the influence of uncertain gauge
observations and the routing procedure in the hydrological model is usually more
dominant and uncertainty ranges due to these factors may be much larger for a short
forecast horizon than the spread from different rainfall forecasts. However, as
mentioned above, operational constraints preclude the variation of gauge
observations or the parameters of the routing algorithms. Therefore, a different
approach is used in downstream catchments (see also figure 4):
1. With all available rainfall forecasts and the matching runoff forecasts from
headwater catchments, calculate an ensemble of runoff forecasts. Without
adding a static uncertainty measure, calculate the empirical uncertainty
distribution and select the value on the desired uncertainty level (e.g. 10% and
90% exceedance probability). This is the dynamic uncertainty stemming only
from the rainfall forecast uncertainty
2. Select the most likely rainfall forecast and the matching runoff forecast from
upstream. The selection can be done on an objective base (e.g. long-term
analysis of rainfall forecast quality) and/or a subjective base (e.g. the advice of
a meteorologist). This forecast is regarded as the best single estimate of
future runoff and termed 'lead forecast'.
3. To the lead forecast, add the empirical uncertainty distribution and select the
value on the desired uncertainty level (e.g. 10% and 90% exceedance
probability). This is the static uncertainty stemming from all sources of
uncertainty.

4. Combine the static and dynamic uncertainty by taking the enveloping curve of
the two.

Figure 4: Calculating the uncertainty distribution in a downstream catchment


One question has so far not been answered: How are the empirical uncertainty
distributions determined? This also differs for up- and downstream catchments:
In headwater catchments, the static uncertainty measure has to include all sources of
uncertainty except the one stemming from the rainfall forecast (because this is
dynamically accounted for by applying rainfall forecast ensembles). The uncertainty
measure is therefore determined as follows (see also figure 5):
1. For a large number of historical floods, calculate runoff forecasts. Instead of
taking real rainfall forecasts, rainfall observations are used. Thus, the
uncertainty of rainfall forecasts is excluded.
2. Calculate a suitable error statistic for each forecast value. Here, the percent
error [(Qobserved Qforecast) / Qforecast ] * 100 was used.
3. From all runoff forecasts, collect the errors with the same forecast horizon and
order them by magnitude. This is the empirical exceedance probability
distribution of forecast errors (or, in other words, the forecast uncertainty)
4. From this distribution, errors on any desired level of exceedance probability
can be drawn, e.g. on the 10% and 90% level.

Gauge Kempten/Iller
Cumulative error distribution

1,0
Forecast Depth 1h
Forecast Depth 3h

0,9

Forecast Depth 6h
Forecast Depth 12h

0,8

Cumulative error distribution [ ]

Forecast Depth 24h


0,7
0,6
0,5
0,4
0,3
0,2
0,1
0,0
-50

-40

-30

-20

-10

10

20

30

40

50

(Qobserved-Qforecast)/Qforecast * 100 [%]

Figure 5: Empirical error distribution for different forecast horizons in a headwater


catchment, gauge Kempten at river Iller (Haag, 2007).
In downstream catchments, the static uncertainty measure comprises all sources of
uncertainty including the rainfall forecast uncertainty. The uncertainty measure can
therefore be determined by analysing old runoff forecasts:
1. Based on the large number of archived runoff forecasts and matching gauge
observations in Bavaria, calculate a suitable error statistic for each forecast
value. Here, the percent error [(Qobserved Qforecast) / Qforecast ] * 100 was used.
2. From all runoff forecasts, collect the errors with the same forecast horizon and
order them by magnitude. This is the empirical exceedance probability
distribution of forecast errors (or, in other words, the forecast uncertainty)
3. From this distribution, errors on any desired level of exceedance probability
can be drawn, e.g. on the 10% and 90% level.
The so far developed approaches bear some weaknesses which ought to be
resolved step-by-step. Amongst others, the analysis of the static uncertainty based
on old, archived runoff forecasts does not distinguish between errors in time and
value. If, for example, the peak of a flood wave is forecasted correctly in height, but
not in time, the resulting differences, which are relative high, influence the analysis in
a questionable way. A possible solution might involve examining the minimal
distance of the forecasted value to the observed as vectorial deviation.

4 COMMUNICATING UNCERTAINTY
As shown in section 1.2, communicating uncertainty to the users of the hydrological
forecast is a very important task. The focus of interest in this section is how to publish
a graphic for the public in the web presence. For this target group the design should
be simple and intuitive. As dealing with probabilistic numbers is not common to most
users, descriptions and explanations should also be intelligible to all.
Up to now, publishing uncertainty of hydrological forecasts in the web presence is
rarely done by operational hydrological services. Most figures only show one
(deterministic) forecast without any ranges of uncertainty. Other services like the
National Weather Service of the United States offer separate figures showing
exceedance probabilities for water levels within a certain time period (figure 6).
These are, however, calculated by statistic analysis rather than taking into account
real-time forecasts.

Figure 6. Graph of a probabilistic stage forecast showing different exceedance


probabilities published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's
National Weather Service (www.weather.gov/ahps).
The Lower Austrian and the Bavarian hydrological services show rather similar
illustrations of their forecasts (figure 7 and 8): A distinct deterministic forecast (lead
forecast) is drawn as a single time series surrounded by an uncertainty range. In
Lower Austrian the latter is quantified out of an ensemble of 50 meteorological
forecast members marking the 10% and 90% exceedance probability (Komma et al.,

2006). For the Bavarian graph the simplified approach is used up to now. The newly
developed approach will replaced that in the near future. However, the way of
illustration is going to be the same.

Figure 7. The graph of the Lower Austrian hydrological service shows the most likely
forecast surrounded by a confidence interval based o the 10% and 90 % exceedance
probabilities out of 50 ensemble members (www.noel.gv.at).

Figure 8. The graph of the Bavarian Flood Information Centre also shows a
deterministic lead forecast surrounded by an uncertainty range (www.hnd.bayern.de).

The horizon of the published forecasts ranges from 6 to 24 hours depending on the
size of the catchment area. So far no longer forecasts are published due to the
increasing uncertainty. As information for a longer horizon is wanted one possibility is
to reduce the degree of accuracy of this information. Instead of publishing a distinct
time series the exceedance probability of certain water levels is shown for the next
days (figure 9). In Bavaria the flood warning system uses four warn levels, which are
determined for each of the warning gauging stations, marking the flood impacts in
this area. Based on the ensemble forecast including the calculated uncertainty the
graph shows the exceedance probabilities of each warn level by filling its square
proportionally with the corresponding colour. The more colourful a warn level appears
the more likely it is reached.

Figure 9. Proposed illustration for a single gauging station showing the exceedance
probabilities of the Bavarian warn levels for the next days.
In order to fulfil the needs of more advanced users like decision makers within the
water management authority more detailed information has to be published. Instead
of showing only the 10% and 90% exceedance probability a graph could also contain
exceedance probabilities in steps of 10 percent.
5 CONCLUSION AND OUTLOOK
Estimating and communicating the uncertainty of hydrological forecasts has become
an important task within operational forecasting now-a-days. The presented
approach of varying the dynamic factor of uncertainty and combing it with a static
part involves the use of meteorological ensemble forecasts. Especially in
headwaters, where the precipitation forecast is the dominating source of uncertainty,
this is seen as an advisable procedure. However, the operational implementation of
this approach is not finished until now, so findings cannot be proved through
operational results so far.

As input for the precipitation forecast a so-called poor mans ensemble, which
consists of all available meteorological forecasts at that time, combined with the
output of the model COSMO-LEPS as a real ensemble will be used. The latter,
though, has the drawback that its results are based on older input due to the long
computing time. Solutions also have to be found how to deal with the different
forecast horizons of the poor mans ensemble.
Analyzing the old, archived flood forecasts for each of the 100 gauges in Bavaria, for
which forecasts are published, has to be automated in order to reduce time and
effort. In doing so different hydrological situations have to be distinguished in order to
increase the significance of the analysis.
As mentioned before communicating uncertainties associated with hydrological
forecasts to the public and the civil authorities is an important task, which has to be
enforced. Adequate illustrations and descriptions should be evaluated incorporating
the normal and the advanced user. Additionally, experiences gained during the next
flood events might help readapting the ways of communication.
Overall, analysis and experiences with forecasts over the last years show that the so
far reached accuracy could be improved in a lot of cases. Hence calculating and
communicating uncertainty is one goal. A major goal, though, remains reducing the
existing uncertainty in the data, the model and its operation. Appropriate operations
and projects remain a permanent task in modelling the Bavarian Danube Catchment.
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