Articles | Volume 18, issue 9
Research article
24 Sep 2014
Research article |  | 24 Sep 2014

A hydrogeologic framework for characterizing summer streamflow sensitivity to climate warming in the Pacific Northwest, USA

M. Safeeq, G. E. Grant, S. L. Lewis, M. G. Kramer, and B. Staab

Abstract. Summer streamflows in the Pacific Northwest are largely derived from melting snow and groundwater discharge. As the climate warms, diminishing snowpack and earlier snowmelt will cause reductions in summer streamflow. Most regional-scale assessments of climate change impacts on streamflow use downscaled temperature and precipitation projections from general circulation models (GCMs) coupled with large-scale hydrologic models. Here we develop and apply an analytical hydrogeologic framework for characterizing summer streamflow sensitivity to a change in the timing and magnitude of recharge in a spatially explicit fashion. In particular, we incorporate the role of deep groundwater, which large-scale hydrologic models generally fail to capture, into streamflow sensitivity assessments. We validate our analytical streamflow sensitivities against two empirical measures of sensitivity derived using historical observations of temperature, precipitation, and streamflow from 217 watersheds. In general, empirically and analytically derived streamflow sensitivity values correspond. Although the selected watersheds cover a range of hydrologic regimes (e.g., rain-dominated, mixture of rain and snow, and snow-dominated), sensitivity validation was primarily driven by the snow-dominated watersheds, which are subjected to a wider range of change in recharge timing and magnitude as a result of increased temperature. Overall, two patterns emerge from this analysis: first, areas with high streamflow sensitivity also have higher summer streamflows as compared to low-sensitivity areas. Second, the level of sensitivity and spatial extent of highly sensitive areas diminishes over time as the summer progresses. Results of this analysis point to a robust, practical, and scalable approach that can help assess risk at the landscape scale, complement the downscaling approach, be applied to any climate scenario of interest, and provide a framework to assist land and water managers in adapting to an uncertain and potentially challenging future.