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Stefano Materia
Paul A. Dirmeyer
Zhichang Guo
Andrea Alessandri
, and
Antonio Navarra


The discharge of freshwater into oceans represents a fundamental process in the global climate system, and this flux is taken into account in simulations with general circulation models (GCMs). Moreover, the availability of realistic river routing schemes is a powerful instrument to assess the validity of land surface components, which have been recognized to be crucial for the global climate simulation. In this study, surface and subsurface runoff generated by the 13 land surface schemes (LSSs) participating in the Second Global Soil Wetness Project (GSWP-2) are used as input fields for the Hydrology Discharge (HD) routing model to simulate discharge for 30 of the world’s largest rivers. The simplest land surface models do not provide a good representation of runoff, and routed river flows using these inputs are affected by many biases. On the other hand, HD shows the best simulations when forced by two of the more sophisticated schemes. The multimodel ensemble GSWP-2 generates the best phasing of the annual cycle as well as a good representation of absolute values, although the ensemble mean tends to smooth the peaks. Finally, the intermodel comparison shows the limits and deficiencies of a velocity-constant routing model such as HD, particularly in the phase of mean annual discharge.

The second part of the study assesses the sensitivity of river discharge to the variation of external meteorological forcing. The Center for Ocean–Land–Atmosphere Studies version of the SSiB model is constrained with different meteorological fields and the resulting runoff is used as input for HD. River flow is most sensitive to precipitation variability, but changes in radiative forcing affect discharge as well, presumably because of the interaction with evaporation. Also, this analysis provides an estimate of the sensitivity of river discharge to precipitation variations. A few areas (e.g., central and eastern Asia, the Mediterranean, and much of the United States) show a magnified response of river discharge to a given percentage change in precipitation. Hence, an amplified effect of droughts as indicated by the consensus of climate change predictions may occur in places such as the Mediterranean. Conversely, increasing summer precipitation foreseen in places like southern and eastern Asia may amplify floods in these poor and heavily populated regions. Globally, a 1% fluctuation in precipitation forcing results in an average 2.3% change in discharge. These results can be used for the definition and assessment of new strategies for land use and water management in the near future.

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