Articles | Volume 15, issue 9
Research article
13 Sep 2011
Research article |  | 13 Sep 2011

Low-frequency variability of European runoff

L. Gudmundsson, L. M. Tallaksen, K. Stahl, and A. K. Fleig

Abstract. This study investigates the low-frequency components of observed monthly river flow from a large number of small catchments in Europe. The low-frequency components, defined as fluctuations on time scales longer than one year, were analysed both with respect to their dominant space-time patterns as well as their contribution to the variance of monthly runoff.

The analysis of observed streamflow and corresponding time series of precipitation and temperature, showed that the fraction of low-frequency variance of runoff is on average larger than, and not correlated to, the fraction of low-frequency variance of precipitation and temperature. However, it is correlated with mean climatic conditions and is on average lowest in catchments with significant influence of snow. Furthermore, it increases (decreases) under drier (wetter) conditions – indicating that the average degree of catchment wetness may be a primary control of low-frequency runoff dynamics. The fraction of low-frequency variance of runoff is consistently lower in responsive catchments, with a high variability of daily runoff.

The dominant space-time patterns of low-frequency runoff in Europe, identified using nonlinear dimension reduction, revealed that low-frequency runoff can be described with three modes, explaining together 80.6% of the variance. The dominant mode has opposing centres of simultaneous variations in northern and southern Europe. The secondary mode features a west-east pattern and the third mode has its centre of influence in central Europe. All modes are closely related to the space-time patterns extracted from time series of precipitation and temperature.

In summary, it is shown that the dynamics of low-frequency runoff follows well known continental-scale atmospheric features, whereas the proportion of variance attributed to low-frequency fluctuations is controlled by catchment processes and varies with mean climatic conditions. The results may have implications for interpreting the impact of changes in temperature and precipitation on river-flow dynamics.