Articles | Volume 17, issue 2
Research article
 | Highlight paper
11 Feb 2013
Research article | Highlight paper |  | 11 Feb 2013

The importance of glacier and forest change in hydrological climate-impact studies

N. Köplin, B. Schädler, D. Viviroli, and R. Weingartner

Abstract. Changes in land cover alter the water balance components of a catchment, due to strong interactions between soils, vegetation and the atmosphere. Therefore, hydrological climate impact studies should also integrate scenarios of associated land cover change. To reflect two severe climate-induced changes in land cover, we applied scenarios of glacier retreat and forest cover increase that were derived from the temperature signals of the climate scenarios used in this study. The climate scenarios were derived from ten regional climate models from the ENSEMBLES project. Their respective temperature and precipitation changes between the scenario period (2074–2095) and the control period (1984–2005) were used to run a hydrological model. The relative importance of each of the three types of scenarios (climate, glacier, forest) was assessed through an analysis of variance (ANOVA). Altogether, 15 mountainous catchments in Switzerland were analysed, exhibiting different degrees of glaciation during the control period (0–51%) and different degrees of forest cover increase under scenarios of change (12–55% of the catchment area). The results show that even an extreme change in forest cover is negligible with respect to changes in runoff, but it is crucial as soon as changes in evaporation or soil moisture are concerned. For the latter two variables, the relative impact of forest change is proportional to the magnitude of its change. For changes that concern 35% of the catchment area or more, the effect of forest change on summer evapotranspiration is equally or even more important than the climate signal. For catchments with a glaciation of 10% or more in the control period, the glacier retreat significantly determines summer and annual runoff. The most important source of uncertainty in this study, though, is the climate scenario and it is highly recommended to apply an ensemble of climate scenarios in the impact studies. The results presented here are valid for the climatic region they were tested for, i.e., a humid, mid-latitude mountainous environment. They might be different for regions where the evaporation is a major component of the water balance, for example. Nevertheless, a hydrological climate-impact study that assesses the additional impacts of forest and glacier change is new so far and provides insight into the question whether or not it is necessary to account for land cover changes as part of climate change impacts on hydrological systems.