Letter | Published:

Anthropogenic climate change detected in European renewable freshwater resources

Nature Climate Change volume 7, pages 813816 (2017) | Download Citation

Abstract

Although there is overwhelming evidence showing that human emissions are affecting a wide range of atmospheric variables1, it is not clear whether anthropogenic climate change is detectable in continental-scale freshwater resources. Owing to the complexity of terrestrial hydro-systems there is to date only limited evidence suggesting that climate change has altered river discharge in specific regions2,3,4,5. Here we show that it is likely6 that anthropogenic emissions have left a detectable fingerprint in renewable freshwater resources in Europe. We use the detection and attribution approach1,7 to compare river-flow observations8 with state-of-the-art climate model simulations9. The analysis shows that the previously observed amplification of the south (dry)–north (wet) contrast in pan-European river flow10 is captured by climate models only if human emissions are accounted for, although the models significantly underestimate the response. A regional analysis highlights that a strong and significant decrease is observed in the Mediterranean, generally along with a weak increase in northern Europe, whereas there is little change in transitional central Europe. As river and streamflow are indicators for renewable freshwater resources11,12,13, the results highlight the necessity of raising awareness on climate change projections5,14 that indicate increasing water scarcity in southern Europe.

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Acknowledgements

This research contributes to the European Union funded EUCLEIA project (contract no. 6070085). Partial support of the ERC DROUGHT-HEAT project (contract no. 617518) is acknowledged. The efforts to assemble the European Water Archive (EWA) by the UNESCO IHP VII FRIEND programme, the data collection and management by the GRDC, and the provision of data by Spanish authorities are gratefully acknowledged. We acknowledge the E-OBS dataset from the EU-FP6 project ENSEMBLES (http://ensembles-eu.metoffice.com) and the data providers in the ECA&D project (http://www.ecad.eu). We thank J. Sedlacek and U. Beyerle for the retrieval and preparation of CMIP5 model data.

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Affiliations

  1. Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zurich, Universitaetstrasse 16, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Lukas Gudmundsson
    •  & Sonia I. Seneviratne
  2. Climate Research Division, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Toronto, Ontario M3H 5T4, Canada

    • Xuebin Zhang

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Contributions

L.G. and S.I.S. initiated this project. L.G., S.I.S. and X.Z. designed the study. L.G. carried out the analysis. L.G. wrote the manuscript with contributions from S.I.S. and X.Z. X.Z. contributed to the interpretation and development of the detection and attribution methodology.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lukas Gudmundsson.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3416

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