The magnitude and spatial patterns of historical and future hydrologic change in California’s watersheds

Resource Location: 
Remotely hosted on free website
Thorne, James H., Ryan Boynton, Lorraine E. Flint, Alan L. Flint
February, 2015
Geographic Keywords:

Process-based models that link climate and hydrology permit improved assessments of climate change impacts among watersheds. We used the Basin Characterization Model (BCM), a regional water balance model to (1) ask what is the magnitude of historical and projected future change in the hydrology of California’s watersheds; (2) test the spatial congruence of watersheds with the most historical and future hydrologic change; and (3) identify watersheds with high levels of hydrologic change under drier and wetter future climates. We assessed change for 5135 watersheds over a 60-year historical period and compared it to 90-year future projections. Watershed change was analyzed for climatic water deficit, April 1st snowpack, recharge, and runoff. Watersheds were ranked by change for the historical and two future scenarios. We developed a normalized index of hydrologic change that combined the four variables, and identified which watersheds show the most spatial congruence of large historical change and continued change under the two futures. Of the top 20% of all watersheds (1028), 591 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Northwestern ecoregions have high spatial congruence across all time periods. Among watersheds where change accelerates in the future, but not historically, a majority are congruent between both climate models, predominantly in the Sierra Nevada, Cascade Ranges and the Northwestern ecoregions. This congruence of impacts in watersheds under drier or wetter scenarios is driven by snowpack, but in areas with low snowpack, hydrologic change varied spatially depending on projected precipitation and temperature, with 151 watersheds in Northwestern California showing high levels of drying under the drier scenario, while 103 watersheds in Central western and Southwestern California show increasing hydrologic activity under the wetter scenario. In some regions, the loss of snowpack allows the cycle of runoff and recharge to function without delay represented by springtime snow melt, causing these watersheds to become more immediately hydrologically responsive to changing climate. The study also found watersheds with low rainfall that have already passed through their highest response to changing climate, and show less future change. The methods used here can also be used to identify watersheds resilient to changing climate.


Thorne, J. H., R. Boynton, L. E. Flint, and A. L. Flint. 2015. The magnitude and spatial patterns of historical and future hydrologic change in California’s watersheds. Ecosphere 6:30.

Attached Files: