Quantifying uncertainty in the impacts of climate change on river discharge in sub-catchments of the Yangtze and Yellow River Basins, China
1National Climate Center, Laboratory for Climate Studies of China Meteorological Administration, Beijing, 100081, China
2Department of Geography, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK
3State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, 100085, China
Abstract. Quantitative evaluations of the impacts of climate change on water resources are primarily constrained by uncertainty in climate projections from GCMs. In this study we assess uncertainty in the impacts of climate change on river discharge in two catchments of the Yangtze and Yellow River Basins that feature contrasting climate regimes (humid and semi-arid). Specifically we quantify uncertainty associated with GCM structure from a subset of CMIP3 AR4 GCMs (HadCM3, HadGEM1, CCSM3.0, IPSL, ECHAM5, CSIRO, CGCM3.1), SRES emissions scenarios (A1B, A2, B1, B2) and prescribed increases in global mean air temperature (1 °C to 6 °C). Climate projections, applied to semi-distributed hydrological models (SWAT 2005) in both catchments, indicate trends toward warmer and wetter conditions. For prescribed warming scenarios of 1 °C to 6 °C, linear increases in mean annual river discharge, relative to baseline (1961–1990), for the River Xiangxi and River Huangfuchuan are +9% and 11% per +1 °C respectively. Intra-annual changes include increases in flood (Q05) discharges for both rivers as well as a shift in the timing of flood discharges from summer to autumn and a rise (24 to 93%) in dry season (Q95) discharge for the River Xiangxi. Differences in projections of mean annual river discharge between SRES emission scenarios using HadCM3 are comparatively minor for the River Xiangxi (13 to 17% rise from baseline) but substantial (73 to 121%) for the River Huangfuchuan. With one minor exception of a slight (−2%) decrease in river discharge projected using HadGEM1 for the River Xiangxi, mean annual river discharge is projected to increase in both catchments under both the SRES A1B emission scenario and 2° rise in global mean air temperature using all AR4 GCMs on the CMIP3 subset. For the River Xiangxi, there is substantial uncertainty associated with GCM structure in the magnitude of the rise in flood (Q05) discharges (−1 to 41% under SRES A1B and −3 to 41% under 2° global warming) and dry season (Q95) discharges (2 to 55% under SRES A1B and 2 to 39% under 2° global warming). For the River Huangfuchuan, all GCMs project a rise in the Q05 flow but there is substantial uncertainty in the magnitude of this rise (7 to 70% under SRES A1B and 2 to 57% under 2° global warming). Differences in the projected hydrological changes are associated with GCM structure in both catchments exceed uncertainty in emission scenarios. Critically, estimated uncertainty in projections of mean annual flows is less than that calculated for extreme (Q05, Q95) flows. The common approach of reporting of climate change impacts on river in terms of mean annual flows masks the magnitude of uncertainty in flows that are of most importance to water management.