, Volume 57, Issue 1, pp 295-339

First online:

A comparison of models for estimating the riverine export of nitrogen from large watersheds

  • Richard B. AlexanderAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey Email author 
  • , Penny J. JohnesAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, University of Reading, Aquatic Environments Research Centre
  • , Elizabeth W. BoyerAffiliated withCollege of Environmental Science and Forestry, State University of New York
  • , Richard A. SmithAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey

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We evaluated the accuracy of six watershed models of nitrogen export in streams (kg km2 yr−1) developed for use in large watersheds and representing various empirical and quasi-empirical approaches described in the literature. These models differ in their methods of calibration and have varying levels of spatial resolution and process complexity, which potentially affect the accuracy (bias and precision) of the model predictions of nitrogen export and source contributions to export. Using stream monitoring data and detailed estimates of the natural and cultural sources of nitrogen for 16 watersheds in the northeastern United States (drainage sizes = 475 to 70,000 km2), we assessed the accuracy of the model predictions of total nitrogen and nitrate-nitrogen export. The model validation included the use of an error modeling technique to identify biases caused by model deficiencies in quantifying nitrogen sources and biogeochemical processes affecting the transport of nitrogen in watersheds. Most models predicted stream nitrogen export to within 50% of the measured export in a majority of the watersheds. Prediction errors were negatively correlated with cultivated land area, indicating that the watershed models tended to over predict export in less agricultural and more forested watersheds and under predict in more agricultural basins. The magnitude of these biases differed appreciably among the models. Those models having more detailed descriptions of nitrogen sources, land and water attenuation of nitrogen, and water flow paths were found to have considerably lower bias and higher precision in their predictions of nitrogen export.

error analysis model validation nitrogen watershed models