Articles | Volume 21, issue 11
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 21, 5517–5529, 2017
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 21, 5517–5529, 2017

Research article 13 Nov 2017

Research article | 13 Nov 2017

Future shift of the relative roles of precipitation and temperature in controlling annual runoff in the conterminous United States

Kai Duan1, Ge Sun2, Steven G. McNulty2, Peter V. Caldwell3, Erika C. Cohen2, Shanlei Sun4, Heather D. Aldridge5, Decheng Zhou4, Liangxia Zhang4, and Yang Zhang1 Kai Duan et al.
  • 1Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA
  • 2Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, USDA Forest Service, Raleigh, NC, USA
  • 3Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, USDA Forest Service, Otto, NC, USA
  • 4Key Laboratory of Meteorological Disaster of Ministry of Education, Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology, Nanjing, Jiangsu, China
  • 5State Climate Office of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA

Abstract. This study examines the relative roles of climatic variables in altering annual runoff in the conterminous United States (CONUS) in the 21st century, using a monthly ecohydrological model (the Water Supply Stress Index model, WaSSI) driven with historical records and future scenarios constructed from 20 Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5) climate models. The results suggest that precipitation has been the primary control of runoff variation during the latest decades, but the role of temperature will outweigh that of precipitation in most regions if future climate change follows the projections of climate models instead of the historical tendencies. Besides these two key factors, increasing air humidity is projected to partially offset the additional evaporative demand caused by warming and consequently enhance runoff. Overall, the projections from 20 climate models suggest a high degree of consistency on the increasing trends in temperature, precipitation, and humidity, which will be the major climatic driving factors accounting for 43–50, 20–24, and 16–23 % of the runoff change, respectively. Spatially, while temperature rise is recognized as the largest contributor that suppresses runoff in most areas, precipitation is expected to be the dominant factor driving runoff to increase across the Pacific coast and the southwest. The combined effects of increasing humidity and precipitation may also surpass the detrimental effects of warming and result in a hydrologically wetter future in the east. However, severe runoff depletion is more likely to occur in the central CONUS as temperature effect prevails.

Short summary
We examined the potential roles of major climatic variables (including precipitation, air temperature, solar radiation, specific humidity, and wind speed) in altering annual runoff, which is an important indicator of freshwater supply, in the United States through the 21st century. Increasing temperature, precipitation, and humidity are recognized as three major climatic factors that drive runoff to change in different directions across the country.