Stream temperature sensitivity to climate warming in California’s Sierra Nevada: impacts to coldwater habitat

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Null, Sarah E., Viers, Joshua H., Deas, Michael L, Tanaka, Stacy K., and Mount, Jeffrey F.
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Water temperature influences the distribution, abundance, and health of aquatic organisms in stream ecosystems, so understanding the impacts of climate warming on stream temperature will help guide management and restoration. This study assesses climate warming impacts on stream temperatures in California’s west-slope Sierra Nevada watersheds, and explores stream temperature modeling at the mesoscale. We used natural flow hydrology to isolate climate induced changes from those of water operations and land use changes. A 21 year time series of weekly streamflow estimates from WEAP21, a spatially explicit rainfall-runoff model were passed to RTEMP, an equilibrium temperature model, to estimate stream temperatures. Air temperature was uniformly increased by 2°C, 4°C, and 6°C as a sensitivity analysis to bracket the range of likely outcomes for stream temperatures. Other meteorological conditions, including precipitation, were unchanged from historical values. Raising air temperature affects precipitation partitioning into snowpack, runoff, and snowmelt in WEAP21, which change runoff volume and timing as well as stream temperatures. Overall, stream temperatures increased by an average of 1.6°C for each 2°C rise in air temperature, and increased most during spring and at middle elevations. Viable coldwater habitat shifted to higher elevations and will likely be reduced in California. Thermal heterogeneity existed within and between basins, with the high elevations of the southern Sierra Nevada and the Feather River watershed most resilient to climate warming. The regional equilibrium temperature modeling approach used here is well suited for climate change analysis because it incorporates mechanistic heat exchange, is not overly data or computationally intensive, and can highlight which watersheds are less vulnerable to climate warming. Understanding potential changes to stream temperatures from climate warming will affect how fish and wildlife are managed, and should be incorporated into modeling studies, restoration assessments, and licensing operations of hydropower facilities to best estimate future conditions and achieve desired outcomes.


Null, S. E., J. H. Viers, M. L. Deas, S. K. Tanaka, and J. F. Mount. 2013. Stream temperature sensitivity to climate warming in California’s Sierra Nevada: impacts to coldwater habitat. Climatic Change 116:149–170.