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Hydrologic sensitivity of global rivers to climate change

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Greg O'Donnell


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Climate predictions from four state-of-the-art general circulation models (GCMs) were used to assess the hydrologic sensitivity to climate change of nine large, continental river basins (Amazon, Amur, Mackenzie, Mekong, Mississippi, Severnaya Dvina, Xi, Yellow, Yenisei). The four climate models (HCCPR-CM2, HCCPR-CM3, MPI-ECHAM4, and DOE-PCM3) all predicted transient climate response to changing greenhouse gas concentrations, and incorporated modern land surface parameterizations. Model-predicted monthly average precipitation and temperature changes were downscaled to the river basin level using model increments (transient minus control) to adjust for GCM bias. The variable infiltration capacity (VIC) macroscale hydrological model (MHM) was used to calculate the corresponding changes in hydrologic fluxes (especially streamflow and evapotranspiration) and moisture storages. Hydrologic model simulations were performed for decades centered on 2025 and 2045. In addition, a sensitivity study was performed in which temperature and precipitation were increased independently by 2 °C and 10%, respectively, during each of four seasons. All GCMs predict a warming for all nine basins, with the greatest warming predicted to occur during the winter months in the highest latitudes. Precipitation generally increases, but the monthly precipitation signal varies more between the models than does temperature. The largest changes in the hydrological cycle are predicted for the snow-dominated basins of mid to higher latitudes. This results in part from the greater amount of warming predicted for these regions, but more importantly, because of the important role of snow in the water balance. Because the snow pack integrates the effects of climate change over a period of months, the largest changes occur in early to mid spring when snow melt occurs. The climate change responses are somewhat different for the coldest snow dominated basins than for those with more transitional snow regimes. In the coldest basins, the response to warming is an increase of the spring streamflow peak, whereas for the transitional basins spring runoff decreases. Instead, the transitional basins have large increases in winter streamflows. The hydrological response of most tropical and mid-latitude basins to the warmer and somewhat wetter conditions predicted by the GCMs is a reduction in annual streamflow, although again, considerable disagreement exists among the different GCMs. In contrast, for the high-latitude basins increases in annual flow volume are predicted in most cases.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Nijssen B, O'Donnell GM, Hamlet AF, Lettenmaier DP

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Climate Change

Year: 2001

Volume: 50

Issue: 1/2

Pages: 143-175

ISSN (print): 0165-0009

ISSN (electronic): 1573-1480

Publisher: Springer Netherlands


DOI: 10.1023/A:1010616428763


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