Generating surfaces of daily meteorological variables over large regions of complex terrain

Peter E. Thornton, Steven W. Running, Michael A. White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1163 Scopus citations


A method for generating daily surfaces of temperature, precipitation, humidity, and radiation over large regions of complex terrain is presented. Required inputs include digital elevation data and observations of maximum temperature, minimum temperature and precipitation from ground-based meteorological stations. Our method is; based on the spatial convolution of a truncated Gaussian weighting filter with the set of station locations. Sensitivity to the typical heterogeneous distribution of stations in complex terrain is accomplished with an iterative station density algorithm. Spatially and temporally explicit empirical analyses of the relationships of temperature and precipitation to elevation were performed, and the characteristic spatial and temporal scales of these relationships were explored. A daily precipitation occurrence algorithm is introduced, as a precursor to the prediction of daily precipitation amount. Surfaces of humidity (vapor pressure deficit) are generated as a function of the predicted daily minimum temperature and the predicted daily average daylight temperature. Daily surfaces of incident solar radiation are generated as a function of Sun-slope geometry and interpolated diurnal temperature range. The application of these methods is demonstrated over an area of approximately 400 000 km2 in the northwestern USA, for 1 year, including a detailed illustration of the parameterization process. A cross-validation analysis was performed, comparing predicted and observed daily and annual average values. Mean absolute errors (MAE) for predicted annual average maximum and minimum temperature were 0.7°C and 1.2°C, with biases of +0.1°C and -0.1°C, respectively. MAE for predicted annual total precipitation was 13.4 cm, or, expressed as a percentage of the observed annual totals, 19.3%. The success rate for predictions of daily precipitation occurrence was 83.3%. Particular attention was given to the predicted and observed relationships between precipitation frequency and intensity, and they were shown to be similar. We tested the sensitivity of these methods to prediction grid-point spacing, and found that areal averages were unchanged for grids ranging in spacing from 500 m to 32 km. We tested the dependence of the results on timestep, and found that the temperature prediction algorithms scale perfectly in this respect. Temporal sealing of precipitation predictions was complicated by the daily occurrence predictions, but very nearly the same predictions were obtained at daily and annual timesteps.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)214-251
Number of pages38
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Mar 15 1997


We express our thanks to Cameron Johnston, Marty Beck, James Menakis, and Robert Keane of the USDA Forest Service Fii Sciences Laboratory for collecting all the station data used here. We also thank Joseph Glassy, John Kimball, Timothy Kittel, Robert Kremer, Ramakrishna Nemani, and Joseph White for helpful discussions. Review comments from Jene Michaud and an anonymous reviewer were instrumental in improving an earlier draft of this manuscript. This study was funded by USDA Forest Service Contract INT94932RJVA, Cooperative Park Service Project 1268-0-9001, and NASA Grant NAGW-4234. P.E.T. was supported by a NASA Graduate Student Fellowship in Global Change Research.

FundersFunder number
National Aeronautics and Space AdministrationNAGW-4234
U.S. Forest Service-Retired1268-0-9001, INT94932RJVA


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