Which forcing data errors matter most when modeling seasonal snowpacks?

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Mark S Raleigh, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, United States, Jessica D Lundquist, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States and Martyn P Clark, NCAR, Boulder, CO, United States
High quality forcing data are critical when modeling seasonal snowpacks and snowmelt, but their quality is often compromised due to measurement errors or deficiencies in gridded data products (e.g., spatio-temporal interpolation, empirical parameterizations, or numerical weather model outputs). To assess the relative impact of errors in different meteorological forcings, many studies have conducted sensitivity analyses where errors (e.g., bias) are imposed on one forcing at a time and changes in model output are compared. Although straightforward, this approach only considers simplistic error structures and cannot quantify interactions in different meteorological forcing errors (i.e., it assumes a linear system). Here we employ the Sobol’ method of global sensitivity analysis, which allows us to test how co-existing errors in six meteorological forcings (i.e., air temperature, precipitation, wind speed, humidity, incoming shortwave and longwave radiation) impact specific modeled snow variables (i.e., peak snow water equivalent, snowmelt rates, and snow disappearance timing). Using the Sobol’ framework across a large number of realizations (>100000 simulations annually at each site), we test how (1) the type (e.g., bias vs. random errors), (2) distribution (e.g., uniform vs. normal), and (3) magnitude (e.g., instrument uncertainty vs. field uncertainty) of forcing errors impact key outputs from a physically based snow model (the Utah Energy Balance). We also assess the role of climate by conducting the analysis at sites in maritime, intermountain, continental, and tundra snow zones. For all outputs considered, results show that (1) biases in forcing data are more important than random errors, (2) the choice of error distribution can enhance the importance of specific forcings, and (3) the level of uncertainty considered dictates the relative importance of forcings. While the relative importance of forcings varied with snow variable and climate, the results broadly identify the need to reduce uncertainties in precipitation, longwave radiation, and shortwave radiation.