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A climate change projection for summer hydrologic conditions in a semiarid watershed of central Arizona

Hawkins, Gretchen A., Vivoni, Enrique R., Robles-Morua, Agustin, Mascaro, Giuseppe, Rivera, Erick, Dominguez, Francina
Journal of arid environments 2015 v.118 pp. 9-20
General Circulation Models, air temperature, climate change, cloud cover, dry environmental conditions, emissions, evapotranspiration, hydrologic models, model validation, semiarid zones, stakeholders, stream flow, streams, summer, watersheds, Arizona
Potential climate change impacts on summer precipitation and subsequent hydrologic responses in the southwestern U.S. are poorly constrained at present due to a lack of studies accounting for high resolution processes. In this investigation, we apply a distributed hydrologic model to the Beaver Creek watershed of central Arizona to explore its utility for climate change assessments. Manual model calibration and model validation were performed using radar-based precipitation data during three summers and compared to two alternative meteorological products to illustrate the sensitivity of the streamflow response. Using the calibrated and validated model, we investigated the watershed response during historical (1990–2000) and future (2031–2040) summer projections derived from a single realization of a mesoscale model forced with boundary conditions from a general circulation model under a high emissions scenario. Results indicate spatially-averaged changes across the two projections: an increase in air temperature of 1.2 °C, a 2.4-fold increase in precipitation amount and a 3-fold increase in variability, and a 3.1-fold increase in streamflow amount and a 5.1-fold increase in variability. Nevertheless, relatively minor changes were obtained in spatially-averaged evapotranspiration. To explain this, we used the simulated hydroclimatological mechanisms to identify that higher precipitation limits radiation through cloud cover leading to lower evapotranspiration in regions with orographic effects. This challenges conventional wisdom on evapotranspiration trends and suggest that a more nuanced approach is needed to communicate hydrologic vulnerability to stakeholders and decision-makers in this semiarid region.