Water resources implications of global warming: A U.S. regional perspective

Dennis P. Lettenmaier, Andrew W. Wood, Richard N. Palmer, Eric F. Wood, Eugene Z. Stakhiv

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214 Scopus citations


The implications of global warming for the performance of six U.S. water resource systems are evaluated. The six case study sites represent a range of geographic and hydrologic, as well as institutional and social settings. Large, multi-reservoir systems (Columbia River, Missouri River, Apalachicola-Chatahoochee-Flint (ACF) Rivers), small, one or two reservoir systems (Tacoma and Boston) and medium size systems (Savannah River) are represented. The river basins range from mountainous to low relief and semi-humid to semi-arid, and the system operational purposes range from predominantly municipal to broadly multi-purpose. The studies inferred, using a chain of climate downscaling, hydrologic and water resources systems models, the sensitivity of six water resources systems to changes in precipitation, temperature and solar radiation. The climate change scenarios used in this study are based on results from transient climate change experiments performed with coupled ocean-atmosphere General Circulation Models (GCMs) for the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment. An earlier doubled-CO2 scenario from one of the GCMs was also used in the evaluation. The GCM scenarios were transferred to the local level using a simple downscaling approach that scales local weather variables by fixed monthly ratios (for precipitation) and fixed monthly shifts (for temperature). For those river basins where snow plays an important role in the current climate hydrology (Tacoma, Columbia, Missouri and, to a lesser extent, Boston) changes in temperature result in important changes in seasonal streamflow hydrographs. In these systems, spring snowmelt peaks are reduced and winter flows increase, on average. Changes in precipitation are generally reflected in the annual total runoff volumes more than in the seasonal shape of the hydrographs. In the Savannah and ACF systems, where snow plays a minor hydrological role, changes in hydrological response are linked more directly to temperature and precipitation changes. Effects on system performance varied from system to system, from GCM to GCM, and for each system operating objective (such as hydropower production, municipal and industrial supply, flood control, recreation, navigation and instream flow protection). Effects were generally smaller for the transient scenarios than for the doubled CO2 scenario. In terms of streamflow, one of the transient scenarios tended to have increases at most sites, while another tended to have decreases at most sites. The third showed no general consistency over the six sites. Generally, the water resource system performance effects were determined by the hydrologic changes and the amount of buffering provided by the system's storage capacity. The effects of demand growth and other plausible future operational considerations were evaluated as well. For most sites, the effects of these non-climatic effects on future system performance would about equal or exceed the effects of climate change over system planning horizons.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)537-579
Number of pages43
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1999

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Atmospheric Science


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