Articles | Volume 22, issue 1
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 22, 463–485, 2018
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 22, 463–485, 2018

Research article 22 Jan 2018

Research article | 22 Jan 2018

The role of glacier changes and threshold definition in the characterisation of future streamflow droughts in glacierised catchments

Marit Van Tiel1,2,a, Adriaan J. Teuling2, Niko Wanders3,4, Marc J. P. Vis5, Kerstin Stahl6, and Anne F. Van Loon1 Marit Van Tiel et al.
  • 1School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
  • 2Hydrology and Quantitative Water Management Group, Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen, the Netherlands
  • 3Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
  • 4Department of Physical Geography, Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • 5Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
  • 6Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany
  • anow at: Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany

Abstract. Glaciers are essential hydrological reservoirs, storing and releasing water at various timescales. Short-term variability in glacier melt is one of the causes of streamflow droughts, here defined as deficiencies from the flow regime. Streamflow droughts in glacierised catchments have a wide range of interlinked causing factors related to precipitation and temperature on short and long timescales. Climate change affects glacier storage capacity, with resulting consequences for discharge regimes and streamflow drought. Future projections of streamflow drought in glacierised basins can, however, strongly depend on the modelling strategies and analysis approaches applied. Here, we examine the effect of different approaches, concerning the glacier modelling and the drought threshold, on the characterisation of streamflow droughts in glacierised catchments. Streamflow is simulated with the Hydrologiska Byråns Vattenbalansavdelning (HBV-light) model for two case study catchments, the Nigardsbreen catchment in Norway and the Wolverine catchment in Alaska, and two future climate change scenarios (RCP4.5 and RCP8.5). Two types of glacier modelling are applied, a constant and dynamic glacier area conceptualisation. Streamflow droughts are identified with the variable threshold level method and their characteristics are compared between two periods, a historical (1975–2004) and future (2071–2100) period. Two existing threshold approaches to define future droughts are employed: (1) the threshold from the historical period; (2) a transient threshold approach, whereby the threshold adapts every year in the future to the changing regimes. Results show that drought characteristics differ among the combinations of glacier area modelling and thresholds. The historical threshold combined with a dynamic glacier area projects extreme increases in drought severity in the future, caused by the regime shift due to a reduction in glacier area. The historical threshold combined with a constant glacier area results in a drastic decrease of the number of droughts. The drought characteristics between future and historical periods are more similar when the transient threshold is used, for both glacier area conceptualisations. With the transient threshold, factors causing future droughts can be analysed. This study revealed the different effects of methodological choices on future streamflow drought projections and it highlights how the options can be used to analyse different aspects of future droughts: the transient threshold for analysing future drought processes, the historical threshold to assess changes between periods, the constant glacier area to analyse the effect of short-term climate variability on droughts and the dynamic glacier area to model more realistic future discharges under climate change.

Short summary
Glaciers are important hydrological reservoirs. Short-term variability in glacier melt and also glacier retreat can cause droughts in streamflow. In this study, we analyse the effect of glacier changes and different drought threshold approaches on future projections of streamflow droughts in glacierised catchments. We show that these different methodological options result in different drought projections and that these options can be used to study different aspects of streamflow droughts.