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Paleohydrological context for recent floods and droughts in the Fraser River Basin, British Columbia, Canada

December 17, 2021

The recent intensification of floods and droughts in the Fraser River Basin (FRB) of British Columbia has had profound cultural, ecological, and economic impacts that are expected to be exacerbated further by anthropogenic climate change. In part due to short instrumental runoff records, the long-term stationarity of hydroclimatic extremes in this major North American watershed remains poorly understood, highlighting the need to use high-resolution paleoenvironmental proxies to inform on past streamflow. Here we use a network of tree-ring proxy records to develop 11 subbasin-scale, complementary flood- and drought-season reconstructions, the first of their kind. The reconstructions explicitly target management-relevant flood and drought seasons within each basin, and are examined in tandem to provide an expanded assessment of extreme events across the FRB with immediate implications for water management. We find that past high flood-season flows have been of greater magnitude and occurred in more consecutive years than during the observational record alone. Early 20th century low flows in the drought season were especially severe in both duration and magnitude in some subbasins relative to recent dry periods. Our Fraser subbasin-scale reconstructions provide long-term benchmarks for the natural flood and drought variability prior to anthropogenic forcing. These reconstructions demonstrate that the instrumental streamflow records upon which current management is based likely underestimate the full natural magnitude, duration, and frequency of extreme seasonal flows in the FRB, as well as the potential severity of future anthropogenically forced events.