Articles | Volume 10, issue 2
Development and technical paper
22 Feb 2017
Development and technical paper |  | 22 Feb 2017

Exploring new topography-based subgrid spatial structures for improving land surface modeling

Teklu K. Tesfa and Lai-Yung Ruby Leung

Abstract. Topography plays an important role in land surface processes through its influence on atmospheric forcing, soil and vegetation properties, and river network topology and drainage area. Land surface models with a spatial structure that captures spatial heterogeneity, which is directly affected by topography, may improve the representation of land surface processes. Previous studies found that land surface modeling, using subbasins instead of structured grids as computational units, improves the scalability of simulated runoff and streamflow processes. In this study, new land surface spatial structures are explored by further dividing subbasins into subgrid structures based on topographic properties, including surface elevation, slope and aspect. Two methods (local and global) of watershed discretization are applied to derive two types of subgrid structures (geo-located and non-geo-located) over the topographically diverse Columbia River basin in the northwestern United States. In the global method, a fixed elevation classification scheme is used to discretize subbasins. The local method utilizes concepts of hypsometric analysis to discretize each subbasin, using different elevation ranges that also naturally account for slope variations. The relative merits of the two methods and subgrid structures are investigated for their ability to capture topographic heterogeneity and the implications of this on representations of atmospheric forcing and land cover spatial patterns. Results showed that the local method reduces the standard deviation (SD) of subgrid surface elevation in the study domain by 17 to 19 % compared to the global method, highlighting the relative advantages of the local method for capturing subgrid topographic variations. The comparison between the two types of subgrid structures showed that the non-geo-located subgrid structures are more consistent across different area threshold values than the geo-located subgrid structures. Overall the local method and non-geo-located subgrid structures effectively and robustly capture topographic, climatic and vegetation variability, which is important for land surface modeling.

Short summary
Motivated by the significant topographic influence on land surface processes, this study explored two methods to discretize watersheds into two types of subgrid structures to capture spatial heterogeneity for land surface models. Adopting geomorphologic concepts in watershed discretization yields improved capability in capturing subgrid topographic heterogeneity, which also allowed climatic and land cover variability to be better represented with a nominal increase in computational requirements.