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A review of hydrologic signatures and their applications

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Abstract Hydrologic signatures are quantitative metrics or indices that describe statistical or dynamical properties of hydrologic data series, primarily streamflow. Hydrologic signatures were first used in eco‐hydrology to assess alterations in flow regime, and have since seen wide uptake across a variety of hydrological fields. Their applications include extracting biologically relevant attributes of streamflow data, monitoring hydrologic change, analyzing runoff generation processes, defining similarity between watersheds, and calibrating and evaluating hydrologic models. Hydrologic signatures allow us to extract meaningful information about watershed processes from streamflow series, and are therefore seeing increasing use in emerging information‐rich areas such as global‐scale hydrologic modeling, machine learning, and large‐sample hydrology. This overview paper describes the background and development of hydrologic signature theory, reviews hydrologic signature use across a variety of applications, and discusses ongoing hydrologic signature research including current challenges. This article is categorized under: Science of Water > Science of Water
Relative uncertainty in 11 hydrologic signatures caused by uncertainty in the stage‐discharge rating curve, for a watershed in New Zealand. The boxplot whiskers extend to the 5 and 95 percentiles, and the box covers the interquartile range. Signatures are as follows: BFI, base‐flow index; QAC, flow autocorrelation; QCV, overall flow variability; QHD, high‐flow event duration; QHF, high‐flow event frequency; QHV, high‐flow variability; QLD, low‐flow event duration; QLF, low‐flow event frequency; QLV, low‐flow variability; QMEAN, mean flow; SFDC, slope of the normalized flow duration curve (Reprinted with permission from Westerberg and McMillan (2015). Copyright 2015 Copernicus Publications)
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Schematic illustration of how hydrologic signatures are used in regionalization. Signatures are regionalized to an ungauged basin, and then those signatures are used to condition a hydrologic model for the ungauged basin
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Model bias error when a national model is used to simulate three signatures (baseflow index, rising limb density, flow volume), using data from 485 watersheds in New Zealand. These graphs are used to test hypotheses about how model performance varies with watershed area. Bias in all three signatures is lower for large watersheds (Reprinted with permission from McMillan, Booker, et al. (2016). Copyright 2016 Elsevier)
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Flow regime classes for 830 stream gauges in Australia, clustered using 120 hydrologic signatures. The signatures describe mean and variance in the streamflow magnitude (average, low, high), frequency (low, high), duration (low, high), timing and rate of change. Note that some classes are geographically compact (e.g., 2) while some are dispersed (e.g., 12) (Reprinted with permission from Kennard, Pusey, et al. (2010). Copyright 2010 Wiley)
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Comparison of the influence of catchments attributes (x axis) used to predict hydrological signatures (y axis) with a random forest method for 671 U.S. watersheds with minimal human influence. Large, brightly colored circles imply strong correlations and high influence. The signatures are ordered with better predicted signatures at the top. The strongest relationships are between climate attributes and mean or high flow signatures, with topography, soils, vegetation and geology having low predictive power (Reprinted with permission from Addor et al. (2018). Copyright 2018 Wiley)
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Summary of the three categories of hydrologic signature applications discussed in this paper (Eco‐hydrology, Watershed Processes, and Modeling), with cross‐cutting methodological considerations
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Examples of commonly used hydrologic signatures calculated as metrics of the streamflow timeseries
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