Present and future contribution of glacier storage change to runoff from macroscale drainage basins in Europe



[1] The contribution of glaciers to runoff from large-scale drainage basins in Europe is analyzed for the major streams originating in the Alps: Rhine, Rhone, Po, and Danube. Detailed information on glacier storage change is available from monthly mass balance data of 50 Swiss glaciers for the period 1908–2008. Storage changes are extrapolated to all glaciers in the European Alps. By comparing monthly runoff yields from glacierized surfaces in the summer months with measured runoff at gauges along the entire length of the streams, the relative portion of water from glacier storage change for each month is calculated. Macroscale drainage basins with a size of 100,000 km2 (1% ice-covered) can show a 25% contribution of glaciers to August runoff over the last century. In the lower Danube (0.06% glacierization) glacier meltwater accounts for 9% of observed runoff in September of the extreme year 2003. The relative importance of glacier contribution to runoff does not scale linearly with the percentage of glacierization, as high glacier runoff in summer dominates lowland areas with little precipitation and high evapotranspiration. Thus, glacial meltwaters are relevant to the hydrological regime of macroscale watersheds and do not only have a regional impact. By transiently modeling future glacier retreat until 2100 using climate scenarios, a reduction of glacierized areas in the Alps to 12% of the current value is found. In consequence, summer runoff contribution from currently glacierized basins will be strongly reduced, intensifying issues with water shortage in summer also in poorly glacierized catchments.