A comparison of hillslope drainage area estimation methods using high-resolution DEMs with implications for topographic studies of gullies

Simon J. Walker*, Albert I.J.M. van Dijk, Scott N. Wilkinson, Peter B. Hairsine

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Topographic models provide a useful tool for understanding gully occurrence in the landscape but require reliable estimates of gully head drainage areas. Modern high-resolution topography data (collected using structure from motion photogrammetry or light detection and ranging) is increasingly used for topographic studies of gullies, but little work has been done to assess the variability of gully head drainage area estimates using different methods. This study evaluated alternative approaches to using high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) so that gully topographic models can be more readily applied to any area with suitably high-resolution data. Specifically, we investigated the impact of single- or multiple-direction flow routing algorithms, DEM hydrologic-enforcement procedures and spatial resolution on gully head drainage area estimation. We tested these methods on a 40 km2 site centred on Weany Creek, a low-relief semi-arid landscape draining towards the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Using a subroutine to separate gully heads into those with divergent or convergent flow patterns upslope, we found that divergent flow conditions occurred at half of 484 studied gullies. Drainage areas estimated by different flow routing algorithms were more variable in these divergent cases than for convergent cases. This variation caused a significant difference between topographic threshold parameters (slope b and intercept k) derived from single- or multiple-direction flow routing algorithms, respectively. Different methods of hydrologic enforcement (filling or breaching) also affected threshold analysis, resulting in estimates of the exponent b being ~188% higher if the DEM was filled than if breached. The testing of the methods to date indicates that a finer resolution (≤2 m) DEM and a multiple-direction flow routing algorithm achieve the most realistic drainage area estimates in low-relief landscapes. For Weany Creek we estimated threshold parameters k = 0.033 and b = 0.189, indicating that it is highly susceptible to gully erosion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2229-2247
Number of pages19
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sept 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • divergence and convergence
  • flow routing algorithms
  • gully headcut
  • hydrologic enforcement
  • threshold analysis


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