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David M. Meko
Franco Biondi
Alan H. Taylor
Irina P. Panyushkina
Richard D. Thaxton
Alexander A. Prusevich
Alexander I. Shiklomanov
Richard B. Lammers
, and
Stanley Glidden


Regional warming and associated changes in hydrologic systems pose challenges to water supply management in river basins of the western United States and call for improved understanding of the spatial and temporal variability of runoff. We apply a network of total width, subannual width, and delta blue intensity tree-ring chronologies in combination with a monthly water balance model to identify droughts and their associated precipitation P and temperature T footprints in the Truckee–Carson River basin (TCRB). Stepwise regression gave reasonably accurate reconstructions, from 1688 to 1999, of seasonal P and T (e.g., R2 = 0.50 for May–September T). These were disaggregated to monthly values, which were then routed through a water balance model to generate “indirectly” reconstructed runoff. Reconstructed and observed annual runoff correlate highly (r = 0.80) from 1906 to 1999. The extended runoff record shows that twentieth-century droughts are unmatched in severity in a 300-yr context. Our water balance modeling reconstruction advances the conventional regression-based dendrochronological methods as it allows for multiple hydrologic components (evapotranspiration, snowmelt, etc.) to be evaluated. We found that imposed warming (3° and 6°C) generally exacerbated the runoff deficits in past droughts but that impact could be lessened and sometimes even reversed in some years by compensating factors, including changes in snow regime. Our results underscore the value of combining multiproxy tree-ring data with water balance modeling to place past hydrologic droughts in the context of climate change.

Significance Statement

We show how water balance modeling in combination with tree-ring data helps place modern droughts in the context of the past few centuries and a warming climate. Seasonal precipitation and temperature were reconstructed from multiproxy tree-ring data for a mountainous location near Lake Tahoe, and these reconstructions were routed through a water balance model to get a record of monthly runoff, snowmelt, and other water balance variables from 1688 to 1999. The resulting extended annual runoff record highlights the unmatched severity of twentieth-century droughts. A warming of 3°C imposed on reconstructed temperature generally exacerbates the runoff anomalies in past droughts, but this effect is sometimes offset by warming-related changes in the snow regime.

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