Hydrology and water resources

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This section focuses on the relationship of runoff, lake levels, groundwater, floods and droughts, and water quality, with observed climate variability, climate trends, and land-use and land-cover changes reported since the TAR. The time period under consideration is primarily 1975 to 2005, with many studies extending to earlier decades. Observed changes in precipitation and aspects of surface hydrology are described in more detail by Trenberth et al. (2007), Section 3.3.

1.32.1 Changes in surface and groundwater systems

Since the TAR there have been many studies related to trends in river flows during the 20th century at scales ranging from catchment to global. Some of these studies have detected significant trends in some indicators of river flow, and some have demonstrated statistically significant links with trends in temperature or precipitation; but no globally homogeneous trend has been reported. Many studies, however, have found no trends, or have been unable to separate the effects of variations in temperature and precipitation from the effects of human interventions in the catchment, such as land-use change and reservoir construction. Variation in river flows from year to year is also very strongly influenced in some regions by large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns associated with ENSO, NAO and other variability systems that operate at within-decadal and multi-decadal time-scales.

At the global scale, there is evidence of a broadly coherent pattern of change in annual runoff, with some regions experiencing an increase at higher latitudes and a decrease in parts of West Africa, southern Europe and southern Latin America (Milly et al., 2005). Labat et al. (2004) claimed a 4% increase in global total runoff per 1°C rise in temperature during the 20th century, with regional variation around this trend, but this has been challenged (Legates et al., 2005) due to the effects of non-climatic drivers on runoff and bias due to the small number of data points. Gedney et al., (2006) gave the first tentative evidence that CO2 forcing leads to increases in runoff due to the ecophysiological controls of CO2, although other evidence for such a relationship is difficult to find. The methodology used to search for trends can also influence results, since omitting the effects of cross-correlation between river catchments can lead to an overestimation of the number of catchments showing significant trends (Douglas et al., 2000). Runoff studies that show no trends are listed in the Chapter 1 Supplementary Material (SM).

Runoff in snow basins

There is abundant evidence for an earlier occurrence of spring peak river flows and an increase in winter base flow in basins with important seasonal snow cover in North America and northern Eurasia, in agreement with local and regional climate warming in these areas (Table 1.3). The early spring shift in runoff leads to a shift in peak river runoff away from summer and autumn, which are normally the seasons with the highest water demand, resulting in consequences for water availability (see Chapter 3). See Table SM1.1a for additional changes in runoff/streamflow.


Groundwater in shallow aquifers is part of the hydrological cycle and is affected by climate variability and change through recharge processes (Chen et al., 2002), as well as by human interventions in many locations (Petheram et al., 2001). In the Upper Carbonate Aquifer near Winnipeg, Canada, shallow well hydrographs show no obvious trends, but exhibit variations of 3 to 4 years correlated with changes in annual temperature and precipitation (Ferguson and George, 2003).


At present, no globally consistent trend in lake levels has been found. While some lake levels have risen in Mongolia and China (Xinjiang) in response to increased snow and ice melt, other lake levels in China (Qinghai), Australia, Africa (Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi), North America (North Dakota) and Europe (central Italy) have declined due to the combined effects of drought, warming and human activities. Within permafrost areas in the Arctic, recent warming has resulted in the temporary formation of lakes due to the onset of melting, which then drain rapidly due to permafrost degradation (e.g., Smith et al., 2005). A similar effect has been reported for a lake formed over an Arctic ice shelf (i.e., an epishelf lake), which disappeared when the ice shelf collapsed (Mueller et al., 2003). Permafrost and epishelf lakes are treated in detail by Le Treut et al. (2007). Observed trends in lake levels are listed in Table SM1.1b.

132.2 Floods and droughts

Documented trends in floods show no evidence for a globally widespread change. Although Milly et al. (2002) identified an apparent increase in the frequency of 'large' floods (return period >100 years) across much of the globe from the analysis of data from large river basins, subsequent studies have provided less widespread evidence. Kundzewicz et al. (2005) found increases (in 27 cases) and decreases (in 31 cases) and no trend in the remaining 137 cases of the 195 catchments examined worldwide. Table 1.3 shows results of selected changes in runoff/streamflow, lake levels and floods/droughts. Other examples of changes in floods and droughts may be found in Table SM1.2.

Globally, very dry areas (Palmer Drought Severity Index, PDSI < -3.0) have more than doubled since the 1970s due to a combination of ENSO events and surface warming, while very wet areas (PDSI > +3.0) declined by about 5%, with precipitation as the major contributing factor during the early 1980s and temperature more important thereafter (Dai et al., 2004). The areas of increasing wetness include the Northern Hemisphere high latitudes and equatorial regions. However, the use of PDSI is limited by its lack of effectiveness in tropical regions. Table 1.3 shows the trend in droughts in some regions. Documented trends in severe droughts and heavy rains (Trenberth et al., 2007, Section 3.8.2) show that hydrological conditions are becoming more intense in some regions, consistent with other findings (Huntington, 2006).

1.3.23 Changes in physical and chemical aspects of lakes and rivers

Changes in thermal structure and chemistry have been documented in many parts of the world in recent decades.

Thermal structure

Higher water temperatures have been reported in lakes in response to warmer conditions (Table 1.3) (see Table SM1.3 for additional changes in physical water properties). Shorter periods of ice cover and decreases in river- and lake-ice thickness are treated in Section 1.3.1 and Le Treut et al. (2007). Phytoplankton dynamics and primary productivity have also been altered in conjunction with changes in lake physics (see Section; Figure 1.2; Table 1.6). Since the 1960s, surface water temperatures have warmed by 0.2 to 2°C in lakes and rivers in Europe, North America and Asia. Along with warming surface waters, deep-water temperatures (which reflect long-term trends) of the large East African lakes (Edward, Albert, Kivu, Victoria, Tanganyika and Malawi) have warmed by 0.2 to 0.7°C since the early 1900s. Increased water temperature and longer ice-free seasons influence the thermal stratification and internal hydrodynamics of lakes. In warmer years, surface water temperatures are higher, evaporative water loss increases, summer stratification occurs earlier in the season, and thermoclines become shallower. In several lakes in Europe and North America, the stratified period has advanced by up to 20 days and lengthened by 2 to 3 weeks, with increased thermal stability.

Figure 1.2. Historical and recent measurements from Lake Tanganyika, East Africa: (a) upper mixed layer (surface water) temperatures; (b) deep-water (600 m) temperatures; (c) depth of the upper mixed layer. Triangles represent data collected by a different method. Error bars represent standard deviations. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd. [Nature] (O'Reilly et al., 2003), copyright 2003.

Figure 1.2. Historical and recent measurements from Lake Tanganyika, East Africa: (a) upper mixed layer (surface water) temperatures; (b) deep-water (600 m) temperatures; (c) depth of the upper mixed layer. Triangles represent data collected by a different method. Error bars represent standard deviations. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd. [Nature] (O'Reilly et al., 2003), copyright 2003.


Increased stratification reduces water movement across the thermocline, inhibiting the upwelling and mixing that provide essential nutrients to the food web. There have been decreases in nutrients in the surface water and corresponding increases in deep-water concentrations of European and East African lakes because of reduced upwelling due to greater thermal stability. Many lakes and rivers have increased concentrations of sulphates, base cations and silica, and greater alkalinity and conductivity related to increased weathering of silicates, calcium and magnesium sulphates, or carbonates, in their catchment. In contrast, when warmer temperatures enhanced vegetative growth and soil development in some high-alpine ecosystems, alkalinity decreased because of increased organic-acid inputs (Karst-Riddoch et al., 2005). Glacial melting increased the input of organochlorines (which had been atmospherically transported to and stored in the glacier) to a sub-alpine lake in Canada (Blais et al., 2001).

Increased temperature also affects in-lake chemical processes (Table 1.3) (also see Table SM1.3 for additional observed changes in chemical water properties). There have been decreases in dissolved inorganic nitrogen from greater phytoplankton productivity (Sommaruga-Wograth et al., 1997; Rogora et al., 2003) and greater in-lake alkalinity generation and increases in pH in soft-water lakes (Psenner and Schmidt, 1992). Decreased solubility from higher temperatures significantly contributed to 11 to 13% of the decrease in aluminium concentration (Vesely et al., 2003), whereas lakes that had warmer water temperatures had increased mercury methylation and higher mercury levels in fish (Bodaly et al., 1993). A decrease in silicon content related to regional warming has been documented in Lake Baikal, Russia. River water-quality data from 27 rivers in Japan also suggest a deterioration in both chemical and biological features due to increases in air temperature.

132.4 Summary of hydrology and water resources

Changes in river discharge, as well as in droughts and heavy rains in some regions, indicate that hydrological conditions have become more intense. Significant trends in floods and in evaporation and evapotranspiration have not been detected globally. Some local trends in reduced groundwater and lake levels have been reported, but these are likely to be due to human activities rather than climate change. Climate-change signals related to increasing runoff and streamflow have been observed over the last century in many regions, particularly in basins fed by glaciers, permafrost and snow melt. Evidence includes increases in average runoff of Arctic rivers in Eurasia, which has been at least partly correlated with climate warming, and earlier spring snow melt and increase in winter base flow in North America and Eurasia due to enhanced seasonal snow melt associated with climate warming. There are also indications of intensified droughts in drier regions. Lake formation and their subsequent disappearance in permafrost have been reported in the Arctic. Freshwater lakes and rivers are experiencing increased water temperatures and changes in water chemistry. Surface and deep lake waters are warming, with advances and lengthening of periods of thermal stability in some cases associated with physical and chemical changes such as increases in salinity and suspended solids, and a decrease in nutrient content.

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