28 Feb 2023
 | 28 Feb 2023
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal HESS.

Divergent future drought projections in UK river flows and groundwater levels

Simon Parry, Jonathan D. Mackay, Thomas Chitson, Jamie Hannaford, Victoria A. Bell, Katie Facer-Childs, Alison Kay, Rosanna Lane, Robert J. Moore, Stephen Turner, and John Wallbank

Abstract. Hydrological drought is a serious issue globally which is likely to be amplified by 21st century climate change. In the UK, the impacts of changes in river flow and groundwater drought severity in a future of climate change and higher water demand are potentially severe. Recent publication of a new nationally-consistent set of river flow and groundwater level projections based on state-of-the-art UKCP18 climate projections offers a unique opportunity to quantitatively assess future UK hydrological drought susceptibility. The dataset includes a transient, multi-model ensemble of hydrological projections driven by a single regional climate model (RCM) for 200 catchments and 54 boreholes spanning a period from 1961 to 2080. Assessment of a baseline period (1989–2018) shows that the RCM-driven projections adequately reproduce observed river flow and groundwater level regimes, improving our confidence in using these models for assessment of future drought. Across all hydrological models and most catchments, future low river flows are projected to decline consistently out to 2080. Drought durations, intensities and severities are all projected to increase in most UK catchments. However, the trajectory of low groundwater levels and groundwater drought characteristics diverge from those of river flows. Whilst groundwater levels at most boreholes are projected to decline (consistent with river flows), the majority of boreholes show <10 % reduction in transient low groundwater levels by 2080 and eight show moderate increases. Groundwater drought characteristics in the far future (2050–2079) are often similar to those of the baseline (1989–2018), and in some instances droughts are projected to be most prolonged and severe in the near future (2020–2049). A number of explanatory factors for this divergence are discussed. The sensitivity to seasonal changes in precipitation and potential evapotranspiration is proposed as a principal driver of divergence because low river flows are more influenced by shorter-term rainfall deficits in the summer half-year, whilst groundwater drought appears to be offset somewhat by the wetter winter signal in the RCM projections. Our results have fundamental importance for water management, demonstrating a widespread increase in river flow drought severity and diminishing low flows that could have profound societal and environmental impacts unless mitigated. Furthermore, the divergence in projections of drought in river flows and groundwater levels brings into question the balance between surface and subsurface water resources. The projected contrast in fortunes of surface and subsurface water resources identified for the UK may be replicated in other parts of the world where climate projections suggest a shift towards drier summers and wetter winters.

Simon Parry et al.

Status: open (until 25 Apr 2023)

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Simon Parry et al.

Simon Parry et al.


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Short summary
We studied drought in a dataset of possible future river flows and groundwater levels in the UK and found different outcomes for these two sources of water. Throughout the UK, river flows are likely to be lower in future with droughts more prolonged and severe. However, whilst these changes are also found in some boreholes, in others higher levels and less severe drought are indicated for the future. This has implications for the future balance between surface and below ground water.