Globally observed trends in mean and extreme river flow attributed to climate change

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Science  12 Mar 2021:
Vol. 371, Issue 6534, pp. 1159-1162
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba3996

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Change of flow

Anthropogenic influence on climate has changed temperatures, precipitation, atmospheric circulation, and many other related physical processes, but has it changed river flow as well? Gudmundsson et al. analyzed thousands of time series of river flows and hydrological extremes across the globe and compared them with model simulations of the terrestrial water cycle (see the Perspective by Hall and Perdigão). They found that the observed trends can only be explained if the effects of climate change are included. Their analysis shows that human influence on climate has affected the magnitude of low, mean, and high river flows on a global scale.

Science, this issue p. 1159; see also p. 1096


Anthropogenic climate change is expected to affect global river flow. Here, we analyze time series of low, mean, and high river flows from 7250 observatories around the world covering the years 1971 to 2010. We identify spatially complex trend patterns, where some regions are drying and others are wetting consistently across low, mean, and high flows. Trends computed from state-of-the-art model simulations are consistent with the observations only if radiative forcing that accounts for anthropogenic climate change is considered. Simulated effects of water and land management do not suffice to reproduce the observed trend pattern. Thus, the analysis provides clear evidence for the role of externally forced climate change as a causal driver of recent trends in mean and extreme river flow at the global scale.

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