Causes for the Century-Long Decline in Colorado River Flow

M. Hoerling NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division, Boulder, Colorado

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J. Barsugli NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division, and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado

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B. Livneh Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science, and Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado

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J. Eischeid NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division, and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado

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X. Quan NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division, and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado

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A. Badger Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado

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Abstract

Upper Colorado River basin streamflow has declined by roughly 20% over the last century of the instrumental period, based on estimates of naturalized flow above Lees Ferry. Here we assess factors causing the decline and evaluate the premise that rising surface temperatures have been mostly responsible. We use an event attribution framework involving parallel sets of global model experiments with and without climate change drivers. We demonstrate that climate change forcing has acted to reduce Upper Colorado River basin streamflow during this period by about 10% (with uncertainty range of 6%–14% reductions). The magnitude of the observed flow decline is found to be inconsistent with natural variability alone, and approximately one-half of the observed flow decline is judged to have resulted from long-term climate change. Each of three different global models used herein indicates that climate change forcing during the last century has acted to increase surface temperature (~+1.2°C) and decrease precipitation (~−3%). Using large ensemble methods, we diagnose the separate effects of temperature and precipitation changes on Upper Colorado River streamflow. Precipitation change is found to be the most consequential factor owing to its amplified impact on flow resulting from precipitation elasticity (percent change in streamflow per percent change in precipitation) of ~2. We confirm that warming has also driven streamflow declines, as inferred from empirical studies, although operating as a secondary factor. Our finding of a modest −2.5% °C−1 temperature sensitivity, on the basis of our best model-derived estimate, indicates that only about one-third of the attributable climate change signal in Colorado River decline resulted from warming, whereas about two-thirds resulted from precipitation decline.

Supplemental information related to this paper is available at the Journals Online website: https://doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-19-0207.s1.

© 2019 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Martin Hoerling, martin.hoerling@noaa.gov

Abstract

Upper Colorado River basin streamflow has declined by roughly 20% over the last century of the instrumental period, based on estimates of naturalized flow above Lees Ferry. Here we assess factors causing the decline and evaluate the premise that rising surface temperatures have been mostly responsible. We use an event attribution framework involving parallel sets of global model experiments with and without climate change drivers. We demonstrate that climate change forcing has acted to reduce Upper Colorado River basin streamflow during this period by about 10% (with uncertainty range of 6%–14% reductions). The magnitude of the observed flow decline is found to be inconsistent with natural variability alone, and approximately one-half of the observed flow decline is judged to have resulted from long-term climate change. Each of three different global models used herein indicates that climate change forcing during the last century has acted to increase surface temperature (~+1.2°C) and decrease precipitation (~−3%). Using large ensemble methods, we diagnose the separate effects of temperature and precipitation changes on Upper Colorado River streamflow. Precipitation change is found to be the most consequential factor owing to its amplified impact on flow resulting from precipitation elasticity (percent change in streamflow per percent change in precipitation) of ~2. We confirm that warming has also driven streamflow declines, as inferred from empirical studies, although operating as a secondary factor. Our finding of a modest −2.5% °C−1 temperature sensitivity, on the basis of our best model-derived estimate, indicates that only about one-third of the attributable climate change signal in Colorado River decline resulted from warming, whereas about two-thirds resulted from precipitation decline.

Supplemental information related to this paper is available at the Journals Online website: https://doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-19-0207.s1.

© 2019 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Martin Hoerling, martin.hoerling@noaa.gov

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