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Systematic change in global patterns of streamflow following volcanic eruptions

Abstract

Following large explosive volcanic eruptions, precipitation decreases over much of the globe1,2,3,4,5,6, particularly in climatologically wet regions4,5. Stratospheric volcanic aerosols reflect sunlight, which reduces evaporation, whilst surface cooling stabilizes the atmosphere and reduces its water-holding capacity7. Circulation changes modulate this global precipitation reduction on regional scales1,8,9,10. Despite the importance of rivers to people, it has been unclear whether volcanism causes detectable changes in streamflow, given large natural variability. Here we analyse observational records of streamflow volume for fifty large rivers from around the world that cover between two and six major volcanic eruptions in the twentieth and late nineteenth century. We find statistically significant reductions in flow following eruptions for the Amazon, Congo, Nile, Orange, Ob, Yenisey and Kolyma, amongst others. When data from neighbouring rivers are combined—based on the areas where climate models simulate either an increase or a decrease in precipitation following eruptions—a significant (p < 0.1) decrease in streamflow following eruptions is detected in northern South American, central African and high-latitude Asian rivers, and on average across wet tropical and subtropical regions. We also detect a significant increase in flow in southern South American and southwestern North American rivers. Our findings suggest that future volcanic eruptions could substantially affect global water availability.

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Figure 1: Precipitation and streamflow response to eruptions.
Figure 2: Observed regional streamflow responses.
Figure 3: Observed response of rivers across wet tropical–subtropical regions.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank A. Dai and K. E. Trenberth for making their streamflow data set available. We acknowledge the WCRP’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available the model output listed in Supplementary Table 2, which is available at http://pcmdi9.llnl.gov. For CMIP, the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. We thank the Global Runoff Data Centre, 56068 Koblenz, Germany for the provision of the shapefile used to denote drainage basins in the figures. G.C.H. is supported by the NERC Project PAGODA (Grant No. NE/I006141/1) and the ERC advanced grant TITAN (320691). C.E.I. is supported by a NERC studentship and by TITAN.

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C.E.I. and G.C.H. planned the analysis and wrote the manuscript. C.E.I. conducted the analysis.

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Correspondence to Carley E. Iles.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Iles, C., Hegerl, G. Systematic change in global patterns of streamflow following volcanic eruptions. Nature Geosci 8, 838–842 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2545

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