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Keywords:

  • climate change;
  • historic hydrology;
  • hydroclimatic modelling;
  • Oldman River

Abstract

To predict future river flows, empirical trend projection (ETP) analyses and extends historic trends, while hydroclimatic modelling (HCM) incorporates regional downscaling from global circulation model (GCM) outputs. We applied both approaches to the extensively allocated Oldman River Basin that drains the North American Rocky Mountains and provides an international focus for water sharing. For ETP, we analysed monthly discharges from 1912 to 2008 with non-parametric regression, and extrapolated changes to 2055. For modelling, we refined the physical models MTCLIM and SNOPAC to provide water inputs into RIVRQ (river discharge), a model that assesses the streamflow regime as involving dynamic peaks superimposed on stable baseflow. After parameterization with 1960–1989 data, we assessed climate forecasts from six GCMs: CGCM1-A, HadCM3, NCAR-CCM3, ECHAM4 and 5 and GCM2. Modelling reasonably reconstructed monthly hydrographs (R2 about 0·7), and averaging over three decades closely reconstructed the monthly pattern (R2 = 0·94). When applied to the GCM forecasts, the model predicted that summer flows would decline considerably, while winter and early spring flows would increase, producing a slight decline in the annual discharge (−3%, 2005–2055). The ETP predicted similarly decreased summer flows but slight change in winter flows and greater annual flow reduction (−9%). The partial convergence of the seasonal flow projections increases confidence in a composite analysis and we thus predict further declines in summer (about − 15%) and annual flows (about − 5%). This composite projection indicates a more modest change than had been anticipated based on earlier GCM analyses or trend projections that considered only three or four decades. For other river basins, we recommend the utilization of ETP based on the longest available streamflow records, and HCM with multiple GCMs. The degree of correspondence from these two independent approaches would provide a basis for assessing the confidence in projections for future river flows and surface water supplies. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.