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Estimating Regional Trends in Long-Term Evapotranspiration in the Red River of the North Basin, Minnesota and North Dakota

Phil Gerla - H. Hamm School of Geology and Geological Engineering, University of North Dakota


Procedure and Data

Students in basic hydrology courses usually estimate evapotranspiration

using methods appropriate for short-time rates at a point or in a small
area on the landscape. Less often, however, do ET exercises use longterm and real data to test stationarity and estimate rates over large
watersheds, which can be based on the simple steady-state form of the
water budget equation: precipitation surface-water runoff = ET.

To answer these questions, students tabulated and analyzed both long-term precipitation
and surface-water runoff data for subwatersheds in the region. This provided individual
or small groups of hydrology students with experience in the following ways: (1) work
with large data sets from NWIS and NOAA, (2) use the U.S. Geological Survey's
StreamStats to delineate watersheds and Climate Wizard to characterize changes in
climate, both forward and backward in time, (3) employ the water-budget equation to
estimate ET for subwatersheds by using long-term records of precipitation and runoff, (4)
apply the non-parametric Mann-Kendall test to characterize trends during the last 50
years, and finally, (5) relate the Wigley and Jones (1985) model to future stream runoff.

Steady-state water balance

is used to estimate ET from
discharge (left) and
precipitation (above) for a
an assigned watershed.
Watersheds are quickly
delineated using USGS
StreamStats (right):

above: map of the Red River basin above Lake Winnipeg (modified after
Rasmussen 2015)

Anecdotal evidence suggests that during the last few decades, aboveaverage precipitation and floods have occurred increasingly in the
roughly 105 km2 Red River of the North basin (map above). What is less
clear, however, has been the effect of this apparent broad change of
climate on the spatial and temporal variability of ET, which is a key
component of the regional water budget. Has the ET rate and
distribution been constant or has it changed? If it has changed, does it
vary across the watershed?
left: Grand
Forks, April
1997 (image
from the U.S.

(Gilbert, 1987, includes

probability tables)

Students use the Mann-Kendall to test for trends (upper right) in their
watershed, and probabilities assessed for all the sub-watersheds. Results
can be integrated with global climate change models (
and future conditions evaluated using Wigley and Jones (1985) model:

Assessment and References

w = runoff ratio, e = ET,

and p = precipitation

Assessment of the exercise indicated students quickly acquired knowledge of data extraction, but the analysis and interpretation led to
some confusion and angst among the students and the instructor. This suggests the need for more background instruction and
problem modularization, which will be developed and implemented in the future.
Gilbert, R.O. 1987. Statistical Methods for Environmental Pollution Monitoring. Wiley Publishers. 320 p.
Rasmussen, P.F. 2015. Assessing the impact of climate change on the frequency of floods in the Red River basin. Canadian Water Resources Journal,
DOI: 10.1080/07011784.2015.1025101
Wigley, T.M.L. & P.D. Jones. 1985. Influence of precipitation changes and direct CO2 effects on stream flow. Nature 314:149-151