less severe in other parts of the eastern and centralUnited States.This disconnect between climate model simulationsand observations is due in part to the complexityof interactions between the atmosphere and land-surface systems. Often, the global climate models that predict increased precipitation have too largea scale and too coarse a spatial resolution to tellscientists how hydrology will change at local andregional scales. Smaller-scale regional climatemodels are not yet sophisticated enough to addsignicant information, in part because smallerregions have greater variability from daily to multipleyear time-scales making it even more difcult todistinguish real changes from background noise.Moreover, these models don’t comprehensivelyaddress non-climate issues, such as the constructionof dams and changes in land cover that can alsoaffect water cycles. More information on all thesefactors, and how they interact, is needed to gaina better understanding of how climate change will translate to oods and droughts on a regional andlocal scale.
What Scientists Know AboutChanging Hydrology
Recent analyses of a broad spectrum of watercycle variables, including precipitation, snow cover,and droughts, show that climate change is alreadyaffecting hydrology—and some of these changes havebeen unexpected.Conventional wisdom, in the form of global climatemodels and the basic laws of physics, predicts that the hydrologic cycle will accelerate as climate warms.Changing patterns of precipitation could potentiallylead to more extreme oods and droughts.However, observations show few statisticallysignicant trends in major oods in the UnitedStates, although low and medium range ows inmany streams increased over the second half of the 20th century as the country became generallywetter. Evidence of changes in U.S. droughtcharacteristics is mixed. Droughts have becomelonger, more frequent, and more severe in parts of the eastern and western United States (see Table 1),but other evidence shows droughts have become
Century-scale changes in a broad array of water cycle variables contribute to the scienticevidence for detectable climate warming in the United States. Taken together, these variables indicatethat the hydrologic cycle is accelerating.
Source: The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s national assessment of climate impacts.Reprinted, with permission of Karl et al (2009). Copyright 2009, Cambridge University Press.
Observed Water-Related Changes During the Last Century
Observed ChangeDirectionof ChangeRegion Affected
One to four week earlier peak streamow due to earlier warming-driven snowmeltEarlierWest and NortheastProportion of precipitation falling as snowDecreasingWest and NortheastDuration and extent of snow coverDecreasingMost of the United StatesMountain snow water equivalentDecreasingWestAnnual precipitationIncreasingMost of the United StatesAnnual precipitationDecreasingSouthwestFrequency of heavy precipitation eventsIncreasingMost of the United StatesRunoff and streamowDecreasing Colorado and Columbia RiverBasinsStreamowIncreasingMost of EastAmount of ice in mountain glaciersDecreasingU.S. western mountains, AlaskaWater temperature of lakes and streamsIncreasingMost of the United StatesIce cover on lakes and riversDecreasingGreat Lakes and NortheastPeriods of droughtIncreasingParts of West and EastSalinization of surface watersIncreasingFlorida, LouisianaWidespread thawing of permafrostIncreasingAlaska