Observed changes in the timing of snowmelt dominated streamflow in the western United States are often linked to anthropogenic or other external causes. We assess whether observed streamflow timing changes can be statistically attributed to external forcing, or whether they still lie within the bounds of natural (internal) variability for four large Sierra Nevada (CA) basins, at inflow points to major reservoirs. Streamflow timing is measured by "center timing" (CT), the day when half the annual flow has passed a given point. We use a physically based hydrology model driven by meteorological input from a global climate model to quantify the natural variability in CT trends. Estimated 50-year trends in CT due to natural climate variability often exceed estimated actual CT trends from 1950 to 1999. Thus, although observed trends in CT to date may be statistically significant, they cannot yet be statistically attributed to external influences on climate. We estimate that projected CT changes at the four major reservoir inflows will, with 90% confidence, exceed those from natural variability within 1-4 decades or 4-8 decades, depending on rates of future greenhouse gas emissions. To identify areas most likely to exhibit CT changes in response to rising temperatures, we calculate changes in CT under temperature increases from 1 to 5??. We find that areas with average winter temperatures between -2??C and -4??C are most likely to respond with significant CT shifts. Correspondingly, elevations from 2000 to 2800 in are most sensitive to temperature increases, with CT changes exceeding 45 days (earlier) relative to 1961-1990. Copyright 2007 by the American Geophysical Union.
Additional publication details
Detection, attribution, and sensitivity of trends toward earlier streamflow in the Sierra Nevada