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A hydrologic drying bias in water-resource impact analyses of anthropogenic climate change

September 12, 2017

For water-resource planning, sensitivity of freshwater availability to anthropogenic climate change (ACC) often is analyzed with “offline” hydrologic models that use precipitation and potential evapotranspiration (Ep) as inputs. Because Ep is not a climate-model output, an intermediary model of Ep must be introduced to connect the climate model to the hydrologic model. Several Ep methods are used. The suitability of each can be assessed by noting a credible Ep method for offline analyses should be able to reproduce climate models’ ACC-driven changes in actual evapotranspiration in regions and seasons of negligible water stress (Ew). We quantified this ability for seven commonly used Ep methods and for a simple proportionality with available energy (“energy-only” method). With the exception of the energy-only method, all methods tend to overestimate substantially the increase in Ep associated with ACC. In an offline hydrologic model, the Ep-change biases produce excessive increases in actual evapotranspiration (E), whether the system experiences water stress or not, and thence strong negative biases in runoff change, as compared to hydrologic fluxes in the driving climate models. The runoff biases are comparable in magnitude to the ACC-induced runoff changes themselves. These results suggest future hydrologic drying (wetting) trends likely are being systematically and substantially overestimated (underestimated) in many water-resource impact analyses.

Publication Year 2017
Title A hydrologic drying bias in water-resource impact analyses of anthropogenic climate change
DOI 10.1111/1752-1688.12538
Authors Paul Milly, Krista A. Dunne
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of the American Water Resources Association
Index ID 70190665
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Research Program - Eastern Branch