Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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15.2. Key Regional Characteristics 15.2.1. Water Resources

Figure 15-1:
Potential water resources impacts.

Figure 15-1 Notes: 1. Loukas and Quick, 1999; 2. Taylor and Taylor, 1997; 3. Brugman et al., 1997; 4. Hofmann et al., 1998; 5. BESIS, 1999; 6. Melack et al., 1997; 7. Hamlet and Lettenmaier, 1999; 8. Cohen et al., 2000; 9. Wilby and Dettinger, 2000; 10. Leung and Wigmosta, 1999; 11. Wolock and McCabe, 2000; 12. Felzer and Heard, 1999; 13. Gleick and Chalecki, 1999; 14. Thompson et al., 1998; 15. Fyfe and Flato, 1999; 16. McCabe and Wolock, 1999; 17. Leith and Whitfield, 1998; 18. Williams et al., 1996; 19. Hauer et al., 1997; 20. Wilby et al., 1999; 21. USEPA, 1998b; 22. Hurd et al., 1999; 23. USEPA, 1998; 24. Marsh and Lesack, 1996; 25. Maxwell, 1997; 26. Rouse et al., 1997; 27. MacDonald et al., 1996; 28. Herrington et al., 1997; 29. Strzepek et al., 1999; 30. Clair et al., 1998; 31. Yulianti and Burn, 1998; 32. Lettenmaier et al., 1999; 33. Woodhouse and Overpeck, 1998; 34. Evans and Prepas, 1996; 35. Eheart et al., 1999; 36. Hurd et al., 1998; 37. Mortsch and Quinn, 1996; 38. Chao, 1999; 39. Magnuson et al., 1997; 40. Moore et al., 1997; 41. Abraham et al., 1997; 42. Frederick and Gleick, 1999; 43. Hare et al., 1997; 44. Mulholland et al., 1997; 45. Justic et al., 1996; 46. Arnell, 1999; 47. Cruise et al., 1999; 48. Porter et al., 1996.

Available evidence suggests that global warming may lead to substantial changes in mean annual streamflows, seasonal distributions of flows, and the probabilities of extreme high- or low-flow conditions (Leavesley, 1994; Cubasch et al., 1995; Mearns et al., 1995; Trenberth and Shea, 1997). Runoff characteristics may change appreciably over the next several decades, but in the near term, the hydrological effects of global warming are likely to be masked by ongoing year-to-year climatic variability (Rogers, 1994; Miller, 1997; Matalas, 1998). There is some evidence that the intensity of rainfall events may increase under global warming, as a result of increases in the precipitable water content of the atmosphere (IPCC, 1996; Trenberth and Shea, 1997). This may increase flooding risks in some watersheds. Hydrological changes cannot yet be forecast reliably at the watershed scale, although numerous studies have addressed the potential effects of warming scenarios on water availability in North America (e.g., Mortsch and Quinn, 1996; Melack et al., 1997; Moore et al., 1997; Mulholland et al., 1997; Woodhouse and Overpeck, 1998; Wilby et al., 1999; Wolock and McCabe, 2000). Figure 15-1 summarizes some possible regional hydrological and ecological impacts of climate change identified in recent analyses.

In general, there is greater confidence in projections of seasonal shifts in runoff and related hydrological characteristics than there is in projections of changes in annual runoff. Regional patterns of precipitation change are highly uncertain. Runoff changes also will depend on changes in temperatures and other climatic variables. Warmer temperatures may cause runoff to decline even where precipitation increases (e.g., Nash and Gleick, 1993). Changes in vegetation characteristics will have further, complex impacts on streamflows (Callaway and Currie, 1985; Rosenberg et al., 1990; Riley et al., 1996). Wolock and McCabe (2000) computed annual runoff projections for the 18 major water-resource regions of the continental United States for two GCM scenarios used in the U.S. National Assessment. They found very little agreement between the models—the Canadian Centre for Climate Prediction and Analysis (CCC) model and the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research (HAD) model—regarding the direction of change in average annual runoff. In addition, most of the projected changes for the next century fell within the range of current variability.

Projections of shorter snow accumulation periods appear to be more robust. Many studies of snowmelt-dominated systems show similar seasonal shifts to greater winter runoff and reduced summer flow (e.g., Cooley, 1990; Lettenmaier and Gan, 1990; Rango and Van Katwijk, 1990; Duell, 1992, 1994; Lettenmaier et al., 1992, 1996; Rango, 1995; Melack et al., 1997; Fyfe and Flato, 1999; Wilby et al., 1999). In mountainous areas of western North America, small high-elevation catchments may contribute the bulk of the flow of major river systems (Schaake, 1990; Redmond, 1998). Although some models predict decreases in snowpack, records from at least one long-term alpine site in the Rocky Mountains show an increase in annual precipitation since 1951 (Williams et al., 1996). Earlier melt-off in combination with either lower or higher snowpack will tend to increase winter or spring flows and reduce summer flows. Warmer temperatures could increase the number of rain-on-snow events in some river basins, increasing the risk of winter and spring floods (Lettenmaier and Gan, 1990; Hughes et al., 1993; Loukas and Quick, 1996). Lower summer flows, warmer summer water temperatures, and increased winter flows are results on which many of the regional ecological impacts identified in Figure 15-1 are based.

Studies based on climate change scenarios from older versions of GCMs that did not include aerosol effects suggest reductions in streamflow and lake levels in many Canadian watersheds, despite scenario increases in annual precipitation (Hofmann et al., 1998). Bruce et al. (2000) examined a variety of newer evidence, including temperature and precipitation changes projected by transient runs of seven different atmosphere-ocean GCMs (AOGCMs) with business-as-usual greenhouse gas (GHG) and aerosol increases. They conclude that many areas of Canada, including southwestern Canada and the Great Lakes region, could experience "…reduced total flow, lower minimum flows and lower average annual peak flow" (Bruce et al., 2000).

Open-water evaporation is an important part of the water balance of the North American Great Lakes. Increased evaporation as a result of warmer water temperatures therefore would likely affect future lake levels and outflow into the St. Lawrence River (Mortsch and Quinn, 1996; Mortsch et al., 2000). Most analyses for the Great Lakes suggest declines in lake levels and outflows (Mortsch and Quinn, 1996; Chao, 1999). Chao (1999), for example, examined 10 different transient GCM scenarios (without aerosols) for IPCC decades 2 and 3 and concludes, "In general the decrease in inflows under all the GCM scenarios result in negative impacts to hydropower, navigation and coldwater habitat, and positive ones to shoreline damages." Mortsch et al. (2000) compared such early results to results based on transient runs of the CCC model and the HadCM2 model, both of which include aerosol impacts. Whereas the CCC model run suggests declines in lake levels and outflows comparable to the earlier doubled-CO2 runs (e.g., a 1.01-m decline in the level of Lakes Michigan and Huron by 2050), the HadCM2 model indicates the possibility of a small rise in lake levels and outflows (0.03-m rise in Lakes Michigan and Huron by 2050). Caution is required in interpreting these results because there is substantial uncertainty regarding future sulfate emissions, and projections of aerosol concentrations have declined considerably since these runs were performed (Carter et al., 2000).

Arid environments are characterized by highly nonlinear relationships between precipitation and runoff. Thus, streamflows in the arid and semi-arid western portions of North America will be particularly sensitive to any changes in temperature and precipitation (Schaake, 1990; Arnell et al., 1996; Kaczmarek et al., 1996). Rivers that originate in mountainous regions will be particularly sensitive to winter precipitation in the headwaters, regardless of conditions in the downstream semi-arid zone (e.g., Cohen, 1991). In addition, "…severe flood events may be more damaging in drier climates where soils are more erodible…" (Arnell et al., 1996).

Little research attention has been given to the possible impacts of climate change on sediment transport and deposition, which could affect aquatic ecosystems, reservoir storage capacity, potential flood damages, and the need for dredging operations. However, projected increases in the intensity of precipitation events could contribute to increased erosion and sedimentation in some areas (Mount, 1995).

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