Climate change and stream temperature projections in the Columbia River basin: habitat implications of spatial variation in hydrologic drivers
Abstract. Water temperature is a primary physical factor regulating the persistence and distribution of aquatic taxa. Considering projected increases in air temperature and changes in precipitation in the coming century, accurate assessment of suitable thermal habitats in freshwater systems is critical for predicting aquatic species' responses to changes in climate and for guiding adaptation strategies. We use a hydrologic model coupled with a stream temperature model and downscaled general circulation model outputs to explore the spatially and temporally varying changes in stream temperature for the late 21st century at the subbasin and ecological province scale for the Columbia River basin (CRB). On average, stream temperatures are projected to increase 3.5 °C for the spring, 5.2 °C for the summer, 2.7 °C for the fall, and 1.6 °C for the winter. While results indicate changes in stream temperature are correlated with changes in air temperature, our results also capture the important, and often ignored, influence of hydrological processes on changes in stream temperature. Decreases in future snowcover will result in increased thermal sensitivity within regions that were previously buffered by the cooling effect of flow originating as snowmelt. Other hydrological components, such as precipitation, surface runoff, lateral soil water flow, and groundwater inflow, are negatively correlated to increases in stream temperature depending on the ecological province and season. At the ecological province scale, the largest increase in annual stream temperature was within the Mountain Snake ecological province, which is characterized by migratory coldwater fish species. Stream temperature changes varied seasonally with the largest projected stream temperature increases occurring during the spring and summer for all ecological provinces. Our results indicate that stream temperatures are driven by local processes and ultimately require a physically explicit modeling approach to accurately characterize the habitat regulating the distribution and diversity of aquatic taxa.