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Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 15, 279-294, 2011
© Author(s) 2011. This work is distributed
under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
A comparative analysis of projected impacts of climate change on river runoff from global and catchment-scale hydrological models
S. N. Gosling1, R. G. Taylor2, N. W. Arnell3, and M. C. Todd4
1School of Geography, University of Nottingham, UK
2Department of Geography, UCL, UK
3Walker Institute for Climate System Research, University of Reading, UK
4Department of Geography, University of Sussex, UK

Abstract. We present a comparative analysis of projected impacts of climate change on river runoff from two types of distributed hydrological model, a global hydrological model (GHM) and catchment-scale hydrological models (CHM). Analyses are conducted for six catchments that are global in coverage and feature strong contrasts in spatial scale as well as climatic and developmental conditions. These include the Liard (Canada), Mekong (SE Asia), Okavango (SW Africa), Rio Grande (Brazil), Xiangxi (China) and Harper's Brook (UK). A single GHM (Mac-PDM.09) is applied to all catchments whilst different CHMs are applied for each catchment. The CHMs include SLURP v. 12.2 (Liard), SLURP v. 12.7 (Mekong), Pitman (Okavango), MGB-IPH (Rio Grande), AV-SWAT-X 2005 (Xiangxi) and Cat-PDM (Harper's Brook). The CHMs typically simulate water resource impacts based on a more explicit representation of catchment water resources than that available from the GHM and the CHMs include river routing, whereas the GHM does not. Simulations of mean annual runoff, mean monthly runoff and high (Q5) and low (Q95) monthly runoff under baseline (1961–1990) and climate change scenarios are presented. We compare the simulated runoff response of each hydrological model to (1) prescribed increases in global-mean air temperature of 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0 °C relative to baseline from the UKMO HadCM3 Global Climate Model (GCM) to explore response to different amounts of climate forcing, and (2) a prescribed increase in global-mean air temperature of 2.0 °C relative to baseline for seven GCMs to explore response to climate model structural uncertainty.

We find that the differences in projected changes of mean annual runoff between the two types of hydrological model can be substantial for a given GCM (e.g. an absolute GHM-CHM difference in mean annual runoff percentage change for UKMO HadCM3 2 °C warming of up to 25%), and they are generally larger for indicators of high and low monthly runoff. However, they are relatively small in comparison to the range of projections across the seven GCMs. Hence, for the six catchments and seven GCMs we considered, climate model structural uncertainty is greater than the uncertainty associated with the type of hydrological model applied. Moreover, shifts in the seasonal cycle of runoff with climate change are represented similarly by both hydrological models, although for some catchments the monthly timing of high and low flows differs. This implies that for studies that seek to quantify and assess the role of climate model uncertainty on catchment-scale runoff, it may be equally as feasible to apply a GHM (Mac-PDM.09 here) as it is to apply a CHM, especially when climate modelling uncertainty across the range of available GCMs is as large as it currently is. Whilst the GHM is able to represent the broad climate change signal that is represented by the CHMs, we find however, that for some catchments there are differences between GHMs and CHMs in mean annual runoff due to differences in potential evapotranspiration estimation methods, in the representation of the seasonality of runoff, and in the magnitude of changes in extreme (Q5, Q95) monthly runoff, all of which have implications for future water management issues.

Citation: Gosling, S. N., Taylor, R. G., Arnell, N. W., and Todd, M. C.: A comparative analysis of projected impacts of climate change on river runoff from global and catchment-scale hydrological models, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 15, 279-294, doi:10.5194/hess-15-279-2011, 2011.
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