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Global-scale hydrological response to future glacier mass loss


Worldwide glacier retreat and associated future runoff changes raise major concerns over the sustainability of global water resources1,2,3,4, but global-scale assessments of glacier decline and the resulting hydrological consequences are scarce5,6. Here we compute global glacier runoff changes for 56 large-scale glacierized drainage basins to 2100 and analyse the glacial impact on streamflow. In roughly half of the investigated basins, the modelled annual glacier runoff continues to rise until a maximum (‘peak water’) is reached, beyond which runoff steadily declines. In the remaining basins, this tipping point has already been passed. Peak water occurs later in basins with larger glaciers and higher ice-cover fractions. Typically, future glacier runoff increases in early summer but decreases in late summer. Although most of the 56 basins have less than 2% ice coverage, by 2100 one-third of them might experience runoff decreases greater than 10% due to glacier mass loss in at least one month of the melt season, with the largest reductions in central Asia and the Andes. We conclude that, even in large-scale basins with minimal ice-cover fraction, the downstream hydrological effects of continued glacier wastage can be substantial, but the magnitudes vary greatly among basins and throughout the melt season.

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We thank the Randolph Glacier Inventory consortium for providing global glacier inventory data, the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts for the ERA-interim Reanalysis and the GRDC for discharge data and drainage-basin outlines. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Supplementary Table 2) for producing and making available their model output. R.H acknowledges funding from grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NNX17AB27G and NNX11AO23G). A. Aschwanden, D. Farinotti, A. Johnsson, D. Rounce and M. Truffer commented on a previous version of the manuscript.

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M.H. gathered and prepared the data, performed all the calculations and made the figures. He developed the model and modelling procedure with input from R.H. M.H. and R.H. contributed to the development of the analyses and figures and the discussion of results, and shared the writing of the paper.

Correspondence to Matthias Huss.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1–9 and Supplementary Tables 1–6 and Supplementary References

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16 Supplementary Data Files

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Schematic illustration of the changes in runoff from a glacierized basin in response to continuous atmospheric warming.
Fig. 2: Peak water in all the glacierized macroscale drainage basins.
Fig. 3: Monthly glacier runoff changes over the two periods 2000–2050 and 2000–2090.
Fig. 4: Contribution of future glacier runoff changes (between 2000 and 2090) to the macroscale basin runoff in all 56 investigated basins.
Fig. 5: Projected glacier runoff changes and contribution to basin-scale runoff.