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

Abstract

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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