Integrated Watershed-Scale Response to Climate Change in Selected Basins across the United States

Description:

To determine the sensitivity and potential impact of long-term climate change on the freshwater resources of the United States, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Global Change study "An integrated watershed scale response to global change in selected basins across the United States" was started in 2008. The long-term goal of this national study is to provide the foundation for hydrologically based climate-change studies across the nation.

This special collection presents results that were presented at the American Water Resources Association Spring Meeting, Managing Water Resources & Development in a Changing Climate: 4-6 May 2009, Anchorage, Alaska. The results from 14 basins across the United States are compared in 10 separate papers focusing on either different hydrological processes or alternative ways of presenting results of climate change on water resources.

Editors:
John F. Walker
Lauren E. Hay
Steven L. Markstrom

Integrated Watershed-Scale Response to Climate Change in Selected Basins across the United States

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Daniel E. Christiansen, Steven L. Markstrom, and Lauren E. Hay

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Understanding the effects of climate change on the vegetative growing season is key to quantifying future hydrologic water budget conditions. The U.S. Geological Survey modeled changes in future growing season length at 14 basins across 11 states. Simulations for each basin were generated using five general circulation models with three emission scenarios as inputs to the Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System (PRMS). PRMS is a deterministic, distributed-parameter, watershed model developed to simulate the effects of various combinations of precipitation, climate, and land use on watershed response. PRMS was modified to include a growing season calculation in this study. The growing season was examined for trends in the total length (annual), as well as changes in the timing of onset (spring) and the end (fall) of the growing season. The results showed an increase in the annual growing season length in all 14 basins, averaging 27–47 days for the three emission scenarios. The change in the spring and fall growing season onset and end varied across the 14 basins, with larger increases in the total length of the growing season occurring in the mountainous regions and smaller increases occurring in the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast regions. The Clear Creek basin, 1 of the 14 basins in this study, was evaluated to examine the growing season length determined by emission scenario, as compared to a growing season length fixed baseline condition. The Clear Creek basin showed substantial variation in hydrologic responses, including streamflow, as a result of growing season length determined by emission scenario.

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David M. Bjerklie, Thomas J. Trombley, and Roland J. Viger

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A regional watershed model was developed for watersheds contributing to Long Island Sound, including the Connecticut River basin. The study region covers approximately 40 900 km2, extending from a moderate coastal climate zone in the south to a mountainous northern New England climate zone dominated by snowmelt in the north. The input data indicate that precipitation and temperature have been increasing for the last 46 years (1961–2006) across the region. Minimum temperature has increased more than maximum temperature over the same period (1961–2006). The model simulation indicates that there was an upward trend in groundwater recharge across most of the modeled region. However, trends in increasing precipitation and groundwater recharge are not significant at the 0.05 level if the drought of 1961–67 is removed from the time series. The trend in simulated snowfall is not significant across much of the region, although there is a significant downward trend in southeast Connecticut and in central Massachusetts. To simulate future trends, two input datasets, one assuming high carbon emissions and one assuming low carbon emissions, were developed from GCM forecasts. Under both of the carbon emission scenarios, simulations indicate that historical trends will continue, with increases in groundwater recharge over much of the region and substantial snowfall decreases across Massachusetts, Connecticut, southern Vermont, and southern New Hampshire. The increases in groundwater recharge and decreases in snowfall are most pronounced for the high emission scenario.

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Kathryn M. Koczot, Steven L. Markstrom, and Lauren E. Hay

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Changes in temperature and precipitation projected from five general circulation models, using one late-twentieth-century and three twenty-first-century emission scenarios, were downscaled to three different baseline conditions. Baseline conditions are periods of measured temperature and precipitation data selected to represent twentieth-century climate. The hydrologic effects of the climate projections are evaluated using the Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System (PRMS), which is a watershed hydrology simulation model. The Almanor Catchment in the North Fork of the Feather River basin, California, is used as a case study.

Differences and similarities between PRMS simulations of hydrologic components (i.e., snowpack formation and melt, evapotranspiration, and streamflow) are examined, and results indicate that the selection of a specific time period used for baseline conditions has a substantial effect on some, but not all, hydrologic variables. This effect seems to be amplified in hydrologic variables, which accumulate over time, such as soil-moisture content. Results also indicate that uncertainty related to the selection of baseline conditions should be evaluated using a range of different baseline conditions. This is particularly important for studies in basins with highly variable climate, such as the Almanor Catchment.

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Mark C. Mastin, Katherine J. Chase, and R. W. Dudley

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Spring snowpack is an important water resource in many river basins in the United States in areas where snowmelt comprises a large part of the annual runoff. Increasing temperatures will likely reduce snowpacks in the future, resulting in more winter runoff and less available water during the summer low-flow season. As part of the National Climate Change Modeling Project by the U.S. Geological Survey, distributed watershed-model output was analyzed to characterize areal extent and water-equivalent volumes of spring snowpack for a warming climate. The output from seven selected watershed models from the mountainous western United States and one model from coastal Maine in the northeastern United States shows a future of declining spring snowpack. Snow-cover area (SCA) and snow-water equivalent (SWE) were used to compare the spring snowpack for current conditions (2006) with three time periods in the future (2030, 2060, and 2090) using three Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emission scenarios published in the 2007 Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES): A2, B1, and A1B. Distributed SWE and SCA values were sorted into elevation zones in each basin. The change in spring snowpack over time was greater than the change among different emission scenarios, suggesting that, even for a globally reduced carbon emission scenario, large decreases in SWE are likely to occur. The SRES A2 scenario resulted in the greatest decrease in SWE for six of the basins, and the SRES B1 and A1B scenarios resulted in the greatest decrease in one basin each.

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John F. Walker, Lauren E. Hay, Steven L. Markstrom, and Michael D. Dettinger

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The U.S. Geological Survey Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System (PRMS) model was applied to basins in 14 different hydroclimatic regions to determine the sensitivity and variability of the freshwater resources of the United States in the face of current climate-change projections. Rather than attempting to choose a most likely scenario from the results of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an ensemble of climate simulations from five models under three emissions scenarios each was used to drive the basin models.

Climate-change scenarios were generated for PRMS by modifying historical precipitation and temperature inputs; mean monthly climate change was derived by calculating changes in mean climates from current to various future decades in the ensemble of climate projections. Empirical orthogonal functions (EOFs) were fitted to the PRMS model output driven by the ensemble of climate projections and provided a basis for randomly (but representatively) generating realizations of hydrologic response to future climates. For each realization, the 1.5-yr flood was calculated to represent a flow important for sediment transport and channel geomorphology. The empirical probability density function (pdf) of the 1.5-yr flood was estimated using the results across the realizations for each basin. Of the 14 basins studied, 9 showed clear temporal shifts in the pdfs of the 1.5-yr flood projected into the twenty-first century. In the western United States, where the annual peak discharges are heavily influenced by snowmelt, three basins show at least a 10% increase in the 1.5-yr flood in the twenty-first century; the remaining two basins demonstrate increases in the 1.5-yr flood, but the temporal shifts in the pdfs and the percent changes are not as distinct. Four basins in the eastern Rockies/central United States show at least a 10% decrease in the 1.5-yr flood; the remaining two basins demonstrate decreases in the 1.5-yr flood, but the temporal shifts in the pdfs and the percent changes are not as distinct. Two basins in the eastern United States show at least a 10% decrease in the 1.5-yr flood; the remaining basin shows little or no change in the 1.5-yr flood.

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Roland J. Viger, Lauren E. Hay, Steven L. Markstrom, John W. Jones, and Gary R. Buell

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The potential effects of long-term urbanization and climate change on the freshwater resources of the Flint River basin were examined by using the Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System (PRMS). PRMS is a deterministic, distributed-parameter watershed model developed to evaluate the effects of various combinations of precipitation, temperature, and land cover on streamflow and multiple intermediate hydrologic states. Precipitation and temperature output from five general circulation models (GCMs) using one current and three future climate-change scenarios were statistically downscaled for input into PRMS. Projections of urbanization through 2050 derived for the Flint River basin by the Forecasting Scenarios of Future Land-Cover (FORE-SCE) land-cover change model were also used as input to PRMS. Comparison of the central tendency of streamflow simulated based on the three climate-change scenarios showed a slight decrease in overall streamflow relative to simulations under current conditions, mostly caused by decreases in the surface-runoff and groundwater components. The addition of information about forecasted urbanization of land surfaces to the hydrologic simulation mitigated the decreases in streamflow, mainly by increasing surface runoff.

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William Battaglin, Lauren Hay, and Markstrom Steve

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The mountainous areas of Colorado are used for tourism and recreation, and they provide water storage and supply for municipalities, industries, and agriculture. Recent studies suggest that water supply and tourist industries such as skiing are at risk from climate change. In this study, a distributed-parameter watershed model, the Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System (PRMS), is used to identify the potential effects of future climate on hydrologic conditions for two Colorado basins, the East River at Almont and the Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, and at the subbasin scale for two ski areas within those basins.

Climate-change input files for PRMS were generated by modifying daily PRMS precipitation and temperature inputs with mean monthly climate-change fields of precipitation and temperature derived from five general circulation model (GCM) simulations using one current and three future carbon emission scenarios. All GCM simulations of mean daily minimum and maximum air temperature for the East and Yampa River basins indicate a relatively steady increase of up to several degrees Celsius from baseline conditions by 2094. GCM simulations of precipitation in the two basins indicate little change or trend in precipitation, but there is a large range associated with these projections. PRMS projections of basin mean daily streamflow vary by scenario but indicate a central tendency toward slight decreases, with a large range associated with these projections.

Decreases in water content or changes in the spatial extent of snowpack in the East and Yampa River basins are important because of potential adverse effects on water supply and recreational activities. PRMS projections of each future scenario indicate a central tendency for decreases in basin mean snow-covered area and snowpack water equivalent, with the range in the projected decreases increasing with time. However, when examined on a monthly basis, the projected decreases are most dramatic during fall and spring. Presumably, ski area locations are picked because of a tendency to receive snow and keep snowpack relative to the surrounding area. This effect of ski area location within the basin was examined by comparing projections of March snow-covered area and snowpack water equivalent for the entire basin with more local projections for the portion of the basin that represents the ski area in the PRMS models. These projections indicate a steady decrease in March snow-covered area for the basins but only small changes in March snow-covered area at both ski areas for the three future scenarios until around 2050. After 2050, larger decreases are possible, but there is a large range in the projections of future scenarios. The rates of decrease for snowpack water equivalent and precipitation that falls as snow are similar at the basin and subbasin scale in both basins. Results from this modeling effort show that there is a wide range of possible outcomes for future snowpack conditions in Colorado. The results also highlight the differences between projections for entire basins and projections for local areas or subbasins within those basins.

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Lauren E. Hay, Steven L. Markstrom, and Christian Ward-Garrison

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The hydrologic response of different climate-change emission scenarios for the twenty-first century were evaluated in 14 basins from different hydroclimatic regions across the United States using the Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System (PRMS), a process-based, distributed-parameter watershed model. This study involves four major steps: 1) setup and calibration of the PRMS model in 14 basins across the United States by local U.S. Geological Survey personnel; 2) statistical downscaling of the World Climate Research Programme’s Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 3 climate-change emission scenarios to create PRMS input files that reflect these emission scenarios; 3) run PRMS for the climate-change emission scenarios for the 14 basins; and 4) evaluation of the PRMS output.

This paper presents an overview of this project, details of the methodology, results from the 14 basin simulations, and interpretation of these results. A key finding is that the hydrological response of the different geographical regions of the United States to potential climate change may be very different, depending on the dominant physical processes of that particular region. Also considered is the tremendous amount of uncertainty present in the climate emission scenarios and how this uncertainty propagates through the hydrologic simulations. This paper concludes with a discussion of the lessons learned and potential for future work.

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John Risley, Hamid Moradkhani, Lauren Hay, and Steve Markstrom

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In an earlier global climate-change study, air temperature and precipitation data for the entire twenty-first century simulated from five general circulation models were used as input to precalibrated watershed models for 14 selected basins across the United States. Simulated daily streamflow and energy output from the watershed models were used to compute a range of statistics. With a side-by-side comparison of the statistical analyses for the 14 basins, regional climatic and hydrologic trends over the twenty-first century could be qualitatively identified. Low-flow statistics (95% exceedance, 7-day mean annual minimum, and summer mean monthly streamflow) decreased for almost all basins. Annual maximum daily streamflow also decreased in all the basins, except for all four basins in California and the Pacific Northwest. An analysis of the supply of available energy and water for the basins indicated that ratios of evaporation to precipitation and potential evapotranspiration to precipitation for most of the basins will increase. Probability density functions (PDFs) were developed to assess the uncertainty and multimodality in the impact of climate change on mean annual streamflow variability. Kolmogorov–Smirnov tests showed significant differences between the beginning and ending twenty-first-century PDFs for most of the basins, with the exception of four basins that are located in the western United States. Almost none of the basin PDFs were normally distributed, and two basins in the upper Midwest had PDFs that were extremely dispersed and skewed.

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P. C. D. Milly and Krista A. Dunne

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Hydrologic models often are applied to adjust projections of hydroclimatic change that come from climate models. Such adjustment includes climate-bias correction, spatial refinement (“downscaling”), and consideration of the roles of hydrologic processes that were neglected in the climate model. Described herein is a quantitative analysis of the effects of hydrologic adjustment on the projections of runoff change associated with projected twenty-first-century climate change. In a case study including three climate models and 10 river basins in the contiguous United States, the authors find that relative (i.e., fractional or percentage) runoff change computed with hydrologic adjustment more often than not was less positive (or, equivalently, more negative) than what was projected by the climate models. The dominant contributor to this decrease in runoff was a ubiquitous change in runoff (median −11%) caused by the hydrologic model’s apparent amplification of the climate-model-implied growth in potential evapotranspiration. Analysis suggests that the hydrologic model, on the basis of the empirical, temperature-based modified Jensen–Haise formula, calculates a change in potential evapotranspiration that is typically 3 times the change implied by the climate models, which explicitly track surface energy budgets. In comparison with the amplification of potential evapotranspiration, central tendencies of other contributions from hydrologic adjustment (spatial refinement, climate-bias adjustment, and process refinement) were relatively small. The authors’ findings highlight the need for caution when projecting changes in potential evapotranspiration for use in hydrologic models or drought indices to evaluate climate-change impacts on water.

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