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Alpine foreland running drier? Sensitivity of a drought vulnerable catchment to changes in climate, land use, and water management

Hohmann, Clara, Kirchengast, Gottfried, Birk, Steffen
Climatic change 2018 v.147 no.1-2 pp. 179-193
climate, climate change, drought, irrigation, land use change, risk, runoff, simulation models, summer, temperature, water flow, water management, watersheds, Austria
Southeastern Austria as part of the southeastern Alpine forelands experiences an increase of temperature and a tendency of decreasing precipitation. Especially in summer, the temperature strongly increased by about 0.7 °C per decade since the 1970s. Drought vulnerability under climate change is therefore a key question in this region. Here, we address this question by exploring the hydrological sensitivity of the Raab catchment in Austria (area 987 km²), a typical catchment in these Alpine forelands. Using the process-oriented Water Flow and Balance Simulation Model (WaSiM) over 1982–2011, we focus on low-flow conditions during extended summer (May–September) and analyze the catchment’s runoff sensitivity to climate change, but also land use and water management change. We find that climate change drivers dominate the summertime runoff response (decrease > 40/> 70%), based on moderate and strong climate change cases in the region (temperature + 2/+ 4 K, precipitation − 15/− 30%). Land use changes towards more dry and sealed areas enhance surface runoff and thus may lead to somewhat increased flood peaks. In contrast, water withdrawal for irrigation reduces runoff during low-flow periods in the summer when the irrigation demand is high. Although the impact of these non-climatic drivers on runoff generally is lower than that of the climate change considered, their interactive effects may reinforce the catchment’s tendency of running drier during summer. While more detailed scenario-based assessments are needed to further assess drought risks, this initial study provides clear evidence for the vulnerability of Alpine foreland catchments to increasing summer dryness under climate change.