Articles | Volume 14, issue 7
16 Jul 2010
 | 16 Jul 2010

Sources of uncertainty in climate change impacts on river discharge and groundwater in a headwater catchment of the Upper Nile Basin, Uganda

D. G. Kingston and R. G. Taylor

Abstract. The changing availability of freshwater resources is likely to be one of the most important consequences of projected 21st century climate change for both human and natural systems. However, substantial uncertainty remains regarding the precise impacts of climate change on water resources, due in part due to uncertainty in GCM projections of climate change. Here we explore the potential impacts of climate change on freshwater resources in a humid, tropical catchment (the River Mitano) in the Upper Nile Basin of Uganda. Uncertainty associated with GCM structure and climate sensitivity is explored, as well as parameter specification within hydrological models. These aims are achieved by running pattern-scaled output from seven GCMs through a semi-distributed hydrological model of the catchment (developed using SWAT). Importantly, use of pattern-scaled GCM output allows investigation of specific thresholds of global climate change including the purported 2 °C threshold of "dangerous" climate change. In-depth analysis of results based on the HadCM3 GCM climate scenarios shows that annual river discharge first increases, then declines with rising global mean air temperature. A coincidental shift from a bimodal to unimodal discharge regime also results from a projected reduction in baseflow (groundwater discharge). Both of these changes occur after a 4 °C rise in global mean air temperature. These results are, however, highly GCM dependent, in both the magnitude and direction of change. This dependence stems primarily from projected differences in GCM scenario precipitation rather than temperature. GCM-related uncertainty is far greater than that associated with climate sensitivity or hydrological model parameterisation.