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Reduced streamflow in water-stressed climates consistent with CO2 effects on vegetation

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Abstract

Global environmental change has implications for the spatial and temporal distribution of water resources, but quantifying its effects remains a challenge. The impact of vegetation responses to increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations on the hydrologic cycle is particularly poorly constrained1,2,3. Here we combine remotely sensed normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data and long-term water-balance evapotranspiration (ET) measurements from 190 unimpaired river basins across Australia during 1982–2010 to show that the precipitation threshold for water limitation of vegetation cover has significantly declined during the past three decades, whereas sub-humid and semi-arid basins are not only ‘greening’ but also consuming more water, leading to significant (24–28%) reductions in streamflow. In contrast, wet and arid basins show nonsignificant changes in NDVI and reductions in ET. These observations are consistent with expected effects of elevated CO2 on vegetation. They suggest that projected future decreases in precipitation4 are likely to be compounded by increased vegetation water use, further reducing streamflow in water-stressed regions.

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Figure 1: Spatial patterns of vegetation greening.
Figure 2: Illustration of the breakpoint regression method.
Figure 3: Trends in water limitation threshold characteristics.
Figure 4: CO2 effects on ET, NDVI and runoff.

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Acknowledgements

The authors are very grateful to M. Hutchinson (Australian National University) and colleagues for providing the climate data used in this study. We would also like to thank R. Donohue (CSIRO Land and Water) for useful discussions. A.M.U. has been supported by an international Macquarie University Research Excellence scholarship and a CSIRO Water for a Healthy Country Flagship top-up scholarship. T.F.K. acknowledges support from a Macquarie University Research Fellowship. This paper is a contribution to the AXA Chair Programme in Biosphere and Climate Impacts, and the Imperial College Initiative on Grand Challenges in Ecosystems and the Environment.

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I.C.P., A.M.U. and T.F.K. designed the research and methodology. A.M.U. conducted all statistical and graphical analyses. R.B.M. and N.R.V. provided the key data sets. A.M.U. and I.C.P. wrote the first draft; all authors commented on the final manuscript and assisted with data interpretation.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anna M. Ukkola.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Ukkola, A., Prentice, I., Keenan, T. et al. Reduced streamflow in water-stressed climates consistent with CO2 effects on vegetation. Nature Clim Change 6, 75–78 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2831

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