On the Robustness of Conceptual Rainfall-Runoff Models to Calibration and Evaluation Data Set Splits Selection: A Large Sample Investigation

Danlu Guo, Feifei Zheng, Hoshin Gupta, Holger R. Maier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Conceptual rainfall-runoff (CRR) models are widely used for runoff simulation and for prediction under a changing climate. The models are often calibrated with only a portion of all available data at a location and then evaluated independently with another part of the data for reliability assessment. Previous studies report a persistent decrease in CRR model performance when applying the calibrated model to the evaluation data. However, there remains a lack of comprehensive understanding about the nature of this “low transferability” problem and why it occurs. In this study we employ a large sample approach to investigate the robustness of CRR models across calibration/validation data splits. Specially, we investigate (1) how robust is CRR model performance across calibration/evaluation data splits, at catchments with a wide range of hydroclimatic conditions; and (2) is the robustness of model performance somehow related to the hydroclimatic characteristics of a catchment? We apply three widely used CRR models, GR4J, AWBM and IHACRE_CMD, to 163 Australian catchments having long-term historical data. Each model was calibrated and evaluated at each catchment, using a large number of data splits, resulting in a total of 929,160 calibrated models. Results show that (1) model performance generally exhibits poor robustness across calibration/evaluation data splits and (2) lower model robustness is correlated with specific catchment characteristics, such as higher runoff skewness and aridity, highly variable baseflow contribution, and lower rainfall-runoff ratio. These results provide a valuable benchmark for future model robustness assessments and useful guidance for model calibration and evaluation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2019WR026752
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • calibration
  • conceptual rainfall-runoff models
  • data split
  • evaluation
  • robustness
  • transferability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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