On the theory of drainage area for regular and non-regular points

S. Bonetti, A. D. Bragg, Amilcare Michele M. Porporato

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


The drainage area is an important, non-local property of a landscape, which controls surface and subsurface hydrological fluxes. Its role in numerous ecohydrological and geomorphological applications has given rise to several numerical methods for its computation. However, its theoretical analysis has lagged behind. Only recently, an analytical definition for the specific catchment area was proposed (Gallant & Hutchinson. 2011 Water Resour. Res. 47, W05535. (doi:10.1029/2009WR008540)), with the derivation of a differential equation whose validity is limited to regular points of the watershed. Here, we show that such a differential equation can be derived from a continuity equation (Chen et al. 2014 Geomorphology 219, 68-86. (doi:10.1016/j.geomorph.2014.04.037)) and extend the theory to critical and singular points both by applying Gauss's theorem and by means of a dynamical systems approach to define basins of attraction of local surface minima. Simple analytical examples as well as applications to more complex topographic surfaces are examined. The theoretical description of topographic features and properties, such as the drainage area, channel lines and watershed divides, can be broadly adopted to develop and test the numerical algorithms currently used in digital terrain analysis for the computation of the drainage area, as well as for the theoretical analysis of landscape evolution and stability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20170693
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2211
StatePublished - Mar 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Engineering
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • General Mathematics


  • Digital elevation model
  • Drainage area
  • Geomorphology
  • Gradient fow
  • Landscape evolution
  • Topography


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