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Journal Article

Global hydrological models continue to overestimate river discharge


Heinicke,  Stefanie
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;
Submitting Corresponding Author, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;


Volkholz,  Jan
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;


Schewe,  Jacob
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;

Gosling,  Simon N.
External Organizations;

Müller Schmied,  Hannes
External Organizations;


Zimmermann,  Sandra
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;


Mengel,  Matthias
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;


Sauer,  Inga
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;

Burek,  Peter
External Organizations;

Chang,  Jinfeng
External Organizations;

Kou-Giesbrecht,  Sian
External Organizations;

Grillakis,  Manoli
External Organizations;

Guillaumot,  Luca
External Organizations;

Hanasaki,  Naota
External Organizations;

Koutroulis,  Aristeidis G.
External Organizations;

Otta,  Kedar
External Organizations;

Qi,  Wei
External Organizations;

Satoh,  Yusuke
External Organizations;

Stacke,  Tobias
External Organizations;

Yokohata,  Tokuta
External Organizations;


Frieler,  Katja
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;

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Heinicke, S., Volkholz, J., Schewe, J., Gosling, S. N., Müller Schmied, H., Zimmermann, S., Mengel, M., Sauer, I., Burek, P., Chang, J., Kou-Giesbrecht, S., Grillakis, M., Guillaumot, L., Hanasaki, N., Koutroulis, A. G., Otta, K., Qi, W., Satoh, Y., Stacke, T., Yokohata, T., Frieler, K. (2024): Global hydrological models continue to overestimate river discharge. - Environmental Research Letters, 17, 7, 074005.

Cite as: https://publications.pik-potsdam.de/pubman/item/item_29948
Global hydrological models (GHMs) are widely used to assess the impact of climate change on streamflow, floods, and hydrological droughts. For the 'model evaluation and impact attribution' part of the current round of the Inter-Sectoral Impact Model Intercomparison Project (ISIMIP3a), modelling teams generated historical simulations based on observed climate and direct human forcings with updated model versions. Here we provide a comprehensive evaluation of daily and maximum annual discharge based on ISIMIP3a simulations from nine GHMs by comparing the simulations to observational data from 644 river gauge stations. We also assess low flows and the effects of different river routing schemes. We find that models can reproduce variability in daily and maximum annual discharge, but tend to overestimate both quantities, as well as low flows. Models perform better at stations in wetter areas and at lower elevations. Discharge routed with the river routing model CaMa-Flood can improve the performance of some models, but for others, variability is overestimated, leading to reduced model performance. This study indicates that areas for future model development include improving the simulation of processes in arid regions and cold dynamics at high elevations. We further suggest that studies attributing observed changes in discharge to historical climate change using the current model ensemble will be most meaningful in humid areas, at low elevations, and in places with a regular seasonal discharge as these are the regions where the underlying dynamics seem to be best represented.