Contrasting warming and drought in snowmelt-dominated agricultural basins: Revealing the role of elevation gradients in regional response to temperature change

James M. Gilbert, Reed M. Maxwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


For snow-dominated basins like the San Joaquin in California, warmer temperatures affect hydrologic processes and stress water resources that support valuable irrigated agriculture and urban populations. Large inter-annual swings in precipitation, seen recently in California, highlight the need to better understand the effects of potential future warming combined with such extreme multi-year precipitation variability. In this study we use an integrated hydrologic model (ParFlow-CLM) to examine the effects of mean annual warming of 2C and 4C on hydrologic response over a recent wet-dry cycle (2009-2013). Simulations are performed at a 1 km resolution over the San Joaquin basin to assess the hydrologic response that bridges the local and basin scales common to many previous studies of the region. At the basin scale, warmer temperatures reduce San Joaquin River runoff by an amount consistent with the contemporary dry years: for all but the wettest year, an increase in temperature of 4C reduces simulated runoff to the baseline value of the next driest year simulated. This runoff loss can be attributed to offsetting warming-induced increases in annual evapotranspiration, subsidized in dry years by subsurface storage. Locally, hydrologic response to warming manifests as variation along an elevation gradient. The basin-wide reduction in runoff is the net balance of local increases and reductions that follow a complex function of elevation: negative mean runoff sensitivity can occur at all elevations, yet a positive runoff sensitivity exists for select locations between 2000 m and 3500 m elevation. In contrast, warming increases mean ET at all elevations in the Sierra Nevada, with the highest increase between 1000 m and 3000 m. The average increase in local runoff and ET combine to reduce percolation below the root zone in locations across the Sierra Nevada while shifting event-scale increases in recharge to Central Valley river channels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number074023
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 6 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • Climate change
  • Evapotranspiration
  • Hydrology
  • Runoff
  • San Joaquin river


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