The Sihl River flows through Zurich, Switzerland's most populated city, for which it represents the largest flood threat. To anticipate extreme discharge events and provide decision support in case of flood risk, a hydrometeorological ensemble prediction system (HEPS) was launched operationally in 2008. This model chain relies on limited-area atmospheric forecasts provided by the deterministic model COSMO-7 and the probabilistic model COSMO-LEPS. These atmospheric forecasts are used to force a semi-distributed hydrological model (PREVAH), coupled to a hydraulic model (FLORIS). The resulting hydrological forecasts are eventually communicated to the stakeholders involved in the Sihl discharge management. This fully operational setting provides a real framework with which to compare the potential of deterministic and probabilistic discharge forecasts for flood mitigation.
To study the suitability of HEPS for small-scale basins and to quantify the added-value conveyed by the probability information, a reforecast was made for the period June 2007 to December 2009 for the Sihl catchment (336 km2). Several metrics support the conclusion that the performance gain can be of up to 2 days lead time for the catchment considered. Brier skill scores show that overall COSMO-LEPS-based hydrological forecasts outperforms their COSMO-7-based counterparts for all the lead times and event intensities considered. The small size of the Sihl catchment does not prevent skillful discharge forecasts, but makes them particularly dependent on correct precipitation forecasts, as shown by comparisons with a reference run driven by observed meteorological parameters. Our evaluation stresses that the capacity of the model to provide confident and reliable mid-term probability forecasts for high discharges is limited. The two most intense events of the study period are investigated utilising a novel graphical representation of probability forecasts, and are used to generate high discharge scenarios. They highlight challenges for making decisions on the basis of hydrological predictions, and indicate the need for a tool to be used in addition to forecasts to compare the different mitigation actions possible in the Sihl catchment. No definitive conclusion on the model chain capacity to forecast flooding events endangering the city of Zurich could be drawn because of the under-sampling of extreme events. Further research on the form of the reforecasts needed to infer on floods associated to return periods of several decades, centuries, is encouraged.