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Consistent increase in High Asia's runoff due to increasing glacier melt and precipitation


Rivers originating in the high mountains of Asia are among the most meltwater-dependent river systems on Earth, yet large human populations depend on their resources downstream1. Across High Asia’s river basins, there is large variation in the contribution of glacier and snow melt to total runoff2, which is poorly quantified. The lack of understanding of the hydrological regimes of High Asia’s rivers is one of the main sources of uncertainty in assessing the regional hydrological impacts of climate change3. Here we use a large-scale, high-resolution cryospheric–hydrological model to quantify the upstream hydrological regimes of the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong rivers. Subsequently, we analyse the impacts of climate change on future water availability in these basins using the latest climate model ensemble. Despite large differences in runoff composition and regimes between basins and between tributaries within basins, we project an increase in runoff at least until 2050 caused primarily by an increase in precipitation in the upper Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong basins and from accelerated melt in the upper Indus Basin. These findings have immediate consequences for climate change policies where a transition towards coping with intra-annual shifts in water availability is desirable.

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Figure 1: The upstream basins of Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong.
Figure 2: Annual runoff generated during the reference period (1998–2007) at 1 × 1 km model resolution.
Figure 3: Contribution to total flow by flow components in major streams.
Figure 4: Average annual hydrographs for the future period (2041–2050, RCP4.5) at major rivers’ outlets from the upstream domain (locations are indicated in Supplementary Fig. 1).

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This study is a part of the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP), which is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway and Swedish International Development Agency (Sida). This work is partly financed through the research program VENI of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). We acknowledge the World Climate Research Program’s Working Group on Coupled Modeling, which is responsible for CMIP5, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. We thank the Nepal Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, the International Water Management Institute Pakistan, the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority and the Pakistan Meteorological Department for making available discharge data. Furthermore, we thank J. Sheffield for correcting errors in the Princeton Global Meteorological Forcing data set over the studied region and S. Bajracharya for overall support in the project.

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All authors contributed significantly to this work. The study was conceived by W.W.I., A.B.S. and A.F.L. A.F.L. and W.W.I. designed and implemented the cryospheric–hydrological model and conducted the analysis. A.F.L. prepared the manuscript. W.W.I., A.B.S. and M.F.P.B. contributed to the writing.

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Correspondence to A. F. Lutz.

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Lutz, A., Immerzeel, W., Shrestha, A. et al. Consistent increase in High Asia's runoff due to increasing glacier melt and precipitation. Nature Clim Change 4, 587–592 (2014).

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