Articles | Volume 21, issue 11
Research article
27 Nov 2017
Research article |  | 27 Nov 2017

Global change in streamflow extremes under climate change over the 21st century

Behzad Asadieh and Nir Y. Krakauer

Abstract. Global warming is expected to intensify the Earth's hydrological cycle and increase flood and drought risks. Changes over the 21st century under two warming scenarios in different percentiles of the probability distribution of streamflow, and particularly of high and low streamflow extremes (95th and 5th percentiles), are analyzed using an ensemble of bias-corrected global climate model (GCM) fields fed into different global hydrological models (GHMs) provided by the Inter-Sectoral Impact Model Intercomparison Project (ISI-MIP) to understand the changes in streamflow distribution and simultaneous vulnerability to different types of hydrological risk in different regions. In the multi-model mean under the Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5) scenario, 37 % of global land areas experience an increase in magnitude of extremely high streamflow (with an average increase of 24.5 %), potentially increasing the chance of flooding in those regions. On the other hand, 43 % of global land areas show a decrease in the magnitude of extremely low streamflow (average decrease of 51.5 %), potentially increasing the chance of drought in those regions. About 10 % of the global land area is projected to face simultaneously increasing high extreme streamflow and decreasing low extreme streamflow, reflecting the potentially worsening hazard of both flood and drought; further, these regions tend to be highly populated parts of the globe, currently holding around 30 % of the world's population (over 2.1 billion people). In a world more than 4° warmer by the end of the 21st century compared to the pre-industrial era (RCP8.5 scenario), changes in magnitude of streamflow extremes are projected to be about twice as large as in a 2° warmer world (RCP2.6 scenario). Results also show that inter-GHM uncertainty in streamflow changes, due to representation of terrestrial hydrology, is greater than the inter-GCM uncertainty due to simulation of climate change. Under both forcing scenarios, there is high model agreement for increases in streamflow of the regions near and above the Arctic Circle, and consequent increases in the freshwater inflow to the Arctic Ocean, while subtropical arid areas experience a reduction in streamflow.

Short summary
Multi-model analysis of global streamflow extremes for the 20th and 21st centuries under two warming scenarios is performed. About 37 and 43 % of global land areas show potential for increases in flood and drought events. Nearly 10 % of global land areas, holding around 30 % of world’s population, reflect a potentially worsening hazard of flood and drought. A significant increase in streamflow of the regions near and above the Arctic Circle, and decrease in subtropical arid areas, is projected.