Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Article
  • Published:

Identification of local water resource vulnerability to rapid deglaciation in Alberta


Global glacier retreat driven by climate change will have major impacts on regional water availability, as many communities rely on glacier runoff for water supply during warm and dry seasons. A community whose water resources are potentially vulnerable is one that sources water from a glacier-fed river where that river is expected to substantially change if glacier contributions become negligible. However, regional assessments identifying which communities’ water resources are most vulnerable to such changes are lacking. Here we use observed streamflow measurements, gridded climate data and a database of municipal water sources for communities in Alberta, Canada, to identify the relative importance of glacier runoff at the local scale. In a scenario of negligible glacier runoff, we predict unprecedented streamflow lows at several communities. This approach provides a methodology to identify communities whose water resources may be vulnerable to glacier retreat and would benefit from more-focused research.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Study region of the province of Alberta, Canada.
Fig. 2: Results of PCA and clustering with SOM, showing the first two eigenvectors, the clusters in space and the SOM with clusters in PC space.
Fig. 3: The results of the regression models and the projected streamflow at the identified vulnerable communities.

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

All data are publicly available. ERA-Interim reanalysis is available from ECMWF24. Glacier inventory is available from the RGI27. Topography is available from the SRTM34. Streamflow is available from the Environment Canada HYDAT database42. Municipal water source data, collected in this study, are available on Zenodo (

Code availability

Code to reproduce the main results in this study is available on GitHub (


  1. Barnett, T. P., Adam, J. C. & Lettenmaier, D. P. Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions. Nature 438, 303–309 (2005).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Huss, M. & Hock, R. Global-scale hydrological response to future glacier mass loss. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 135–140 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Immerzeel, W. W., van Beek, L. P. H. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Climate change will affect the Asian water towers. Science 328, 1382–1385 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Kaser, G., Grosshauser, M. & Marzeion, B. Contribution potential of glaciers to water availability in different climate regimes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 20223–20227 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Pritchard, H. D. Asia’s shrinking glaciers protect large populations from drought stress. Nature 569, 649–654 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Milner, A. M. et al. Glacier shrinkage driving global changes in downstream systems. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 9770–9778 (2017).

  7. Marshall, S. J. et al. Glacier water resources on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Can. Water Resour. J. 36, 109–134 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Clarke, G. K. C., Jarosch, A. H., Anslow, F. S., Radić, V. & Menounos, B. Projected deglaciation of western Canada in the twenty-first century. Nat. Geosci. 8, 372–377 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Ebrahimi, S. & Marshall, S. J. Parameterization of incoming longwave radiation at glacier sites in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 120, 12536–12556 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Fitzpatrick, N., Radić, V. & Menounos, B. Surface energy balance closure and turbulent flux parameterization on a mid-latitude mountain glacier, Purcell Mountains, Canada. Front. Earth Sci. 5, 67 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Gascoin, S. et al. Glacier contribution to streamflow in two headwaters of the Huasco River, Dry Andes of Chile. Cryosphere 5, 1099–1113 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Bliss, A., Hock, R. & Radić, V. Global response of glacier runoff to twenty-first century climate change. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 119, 717–730 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Comeau, L. E. L., Pietroniro, A. & Demuth, M. N. Glacier contribution to the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers. Hydrol. Process. 23, 2640–2653 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Jost, G., Moore, R. D., Menounos, B. & Wheate, R. Quantifying the contribution of glacier runoff to streamflow in the upper Columbia River Basin, Canada. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 16, 849–860 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Naz, B. S., Frans, C. D., Clarke, G. K. C., Burns, P. & Lettenmaier, D. P. Modeling the effect of glacier recession on streamflow response using a coupled glacio-hydrological model. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 787–802 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Soruco, A. et al. Contribution of glacier runoff to water resources of La Paz city, Bolivia (16° S). Ann. Glaciol. 56, 147–154 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Greve, P. et al. Global assessment of water challenges under uncertainty in water scarcity projections. Nat. Sustain. 1, 486–494 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Flörke, M., Schneider, C. & McDonald, R. I. Water competition between cities and agriculture driven by climate change and urban growth. Nat. Sustain. 1, 51–58 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Hoekstra, A. Y. Water scarcity challenges to business. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 318–320 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Farinotti, D., Usselmann, S., Huss, M., Bauder, A. & Funk, M. Runoff evolution in the Swiss Alps: projections for selected high-alpine catchments based on ENSEMBLES scenarios. Hydrol. Process. 26, 1909–1924 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Hagg, W., Hoelzle, M., Wagner, S., Mayr, E. & Klose, Z. Glacier and runoff changes in the Rukhk catchment, upper Amu-Darya basin until 2050. Glob. Planet. Change 110, 62–73 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Schindler, D. W. & Donahue, W. F. An impending water crisis in Canada’s western prairie provinces. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 7210–7216 (2006).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Downing, D. & Pettapiece, W. Natural Regions and Subregions of Alberta (Natural Regions Committee, 2006).

  24. Dee, D. P. et al. The ERA-Interim reanalysis: configuration and performance of the data assimilation system. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 137, 553–597 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Marshall, S. J. Meltwater run-off from Haig Glacier, Canadian Rocky Mountains, 2002–2013. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 5181–5200 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Demuth, M. & Keller, R. in Peyto Glacier: One Century of Science (eds Demuth, M. et al.) 83–132 (Environment Canada, 2006).

  27. RGI Consortium Randolph Glacier Inventory (RGI)—A Dataset of Global Glacier Outlines (GLIMS, 2017);

  28. Bash, E. A. & Marshall, S. J. Estimation of glacial melt contributions to the Bow River, Alberta, Canada, using a radiation–temperature melt model. Ann. Glaciol. 55, 138–152 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Moore, R. D. et al. Glacier change in western North America: influences on hydrology, geomorphic hazards and water quality. Hydrol. Process. 23, 42–61 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Human Activity and the Environment: Freshwater in Canada. Section 2: Freshwater Supply and Demand (Statistics Canada, 2017).

  31. Kohonen, T. Self-organized formation of topologically correct feature maps. Biol. Cybern. 43, 59–69 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Shen, C. A transdisciplinary review of deep learning research and its relevance for water resources scientists. Water Resour. Res. 54, 8558–8593 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Fairfield, J. & Leymarie, P. Drainage networks from grid digital elevation models. Water Resour. Res. 27, 709–717 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Farr, T. G. et al. The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. Rev. Geophys. 45, RG2004 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Hsieh, W. W. Machine Learning Methods in the Environmental Sciences: Neural Networks and Kernels (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009).

  36. Unglert, K., Radić, V. & Jellinek, A. M. Principal component analysis vs. self-organizing maps combined with hierarchical clustering for pattern recognition in volcano seismic spectra. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 320, 58–74 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  37. Steiger, M. et al. Explorative analysis of 2D color maps. In Proc. WSCG 2015 Conference on Computer Graphic, Visualization, and Computer Vision (eds Gavrilova, M. & Skala, V.) 151–160 (Union Angency, 2015).

  38. Vesanto, J., Himberg, J., Alhoniemi, E. & Parhankangas, J. SOM Toolbox for Matlab 5 Report A57 (Helsinki Univ. Technol., 2000).

  39. Strahler, A. N. Quantitative analysis of watershed geomorphology. EOS 38, 913–920 (1957).

    Google Scholar 

  40. Jiskoot, H., Curran, C. J., Tessler, D. L. & Shenton, L. R. Changes in Clemenceau Icefield and Chaba Group glaciers, Canada, related to hypsometry, tributary detachment, length–slope and area–aspect relations. Ann. Glaciol. 50, 133–143 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Silverman, B. Density Estimation for Statistics and Data Analysis (Chapman & Hall, 1986).

  42. Water Survey of Canada HYDAT Data (Environment Canada, 2018);

  43. Anderson, S. Alberta municipal water supply overview. Zenodo (2019).

  44. Anderson, S. andersonsam/pca_som_streamflow: first release. Zenodo (2020).

Download references


We thank Environment Canada for providing streamflow data, the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) for the ERA-Interim reanalysis data, the Randolph Glacier Inventory consortium for glacier inventory data and the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission for providing topographic data. We also thank M. Jellinek for providing feedback on the manuscript. Funding supporting this study was provided through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



S.A. gathered and processed the data. S.A. developed the analysis and made the figures, both with input from V.R. S.A. and V.R. shared the writing of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sam Anderson.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Shawn Marshall and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–9.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Anderson, S., Radić, V. Identification of local water resource vulnerability to rapid deglaciation in Alberta. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 933–938 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene