Detection of intensification in global- and continental-scale hydrological cycles: Temporal scale of evaluation

Alan D. Ziegler, Justin Sheffield, Edwin P. Maurer, Bart Nijssen, Eric F. Wood, Dennis P. Lettenmaier

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169 Scopus citations


Diagnostic studies of offline, global-scale Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) model simulations of terrestrial water budgets and simulations of the climate of the twenty-first century using the parallel climate model (PCM) are used to estimate the time required to detect plausible changes in precipitation (P), evaporation (E), and discharge (Q) if the global water cycle intensifies in response to global warming. Given the annual variability in these continental hydrological cycle components, several decades to perhaps more than a century of observations are needed to detect water cycle changes on the order of magnitude predicted by many global climate model studies simulating global warming scenarios. Global increases in precipitation, evaporation, and runoff of 0.6, 0.4, and 0.2 mm yr-1 require approximately 30-45, 25-35, and 50-60 yr, respectively, to detect with high confidence. These conservative detection time estimates are based on statistical error criteria (α = 0.05; β = 0.10) that are associated with high statistical confidence, 1 - α (accept hypothesis of intensification when true, i.e., intensification is occurring), and high statistical power, 1 - β (reject hypothesis of intensification when false, i.e., intensification is not occurring). If one is willing to accept a higher degree of risk in making a statistical error, the detection time estimates can be reduced substantially. Owing in part to greater variability, detection time of changes in continental P, E, and Q are longer than those for the globe. Similar calculations performed for three Global Energy and Water Experiment (GEWEX) basins reveal that minimum detection time for some of these basins may be longer than that for the corresponding continent as a whole, thereby calling into question the appropriateness of using continental-scale basins alone for rapid detection of changes in continental water cycles. A case is made for implementing networks of small-scale indicator basins, which collectively mimic the variability in continental P, E, and Q, to detect acceleration in the global water cycle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)535-547
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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