EGU22-3319, updated on 27 Mar 2022
EGU General Assembly 2022
© Author(s) 2022. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Can examining past variability help us understand catchment response to future climate change?

Clare Stephens1,2, Lucy Marshall2, Fiona Johnson2, Laurence Lin3, Larry Band3,4, and Hoori Ajami5
Clare Stephens et al.
  • 1University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Richmond, Australia (
  • 2Water Research Centre, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UNSW Sydney, Australia
  • 3Department of Environmental Science, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA
  • 4Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA
  • 5Department of Environmental Sciences, University of California, Riverside, CA, 92507, United States of America

It is common to test hydrologic models under contrasting historical periods as an indicator of likely performance under climate change. For example, a model calibrated under average conditions may be tested under increasingly dry subsets of the observational record. Any decline in performance as the testing conditions deviate further from the calibration conditions is then assumed to represent likely performance degradation under climate change scenarios with comparable rainfall decreases. Many studies have inherently applied the assumption that past rainfall variability can be used as a proxy for future climate change, but the analogy may be flawed for three main reasons:

  • Due to lagged hydrologic response to meteorological shifts, catchment behaviour under long-term wetting or drying may not be fully represented over shorter wet or dry periods.
  • Subsets of the past record selected based on rainfall are unlikely to reflect future temperature increases.
  • Past observations do not include expected increases in carbon dioxide levels.

If any of these factors substantially impacts catchment response, subsets of the historical record with equivalent rainfall will not be accurate proxies for future climate scenarios. We tested the impact of each factor using the ecohydrologic model RHESSys. RHESSys dynamically simulates vegetation growth, subsurface flow and nutrient cycling and is thus able to capture the key processes that could drive nonstationary catchment response in the future. We found that all three future climate factors (rainfall change persistence, temperature, and carbon dioxide) altered catchment response substantially, especially for drier future scenarios. For our study catchment, persistence of dry conditions over many decades led to different subsurface water storage levels than the same rainfall experienced over shorter timeframes, leading to different streamflow. The impacts of increased temperature and carbon dioxide concentrations on vegetation further altered runoff behaviour. This means that long-term climate change effects will not necessarily emerge over short historical periods with equivalent rainfall. In our example, ignoring persistence in rainfall changes, rising temperatures, and higher carbon dioxide levels could lead us to underestimate model performance degradation in terms of Nash-Sutcliffe efficiency by as much as 0.41. Therefore, the uncertainty introduced in hydrologic models by future climate change has probably been underestimated in the current literature.

How to cite: Stephens, C., Marshall, L., Johnson, F., Lin, L., Band, L., and Ajami, H.: Can examining past variability help us understand catchment response to future climate change?, EGU General Assembly 2022, Vienna, Austria, 23–27 May 2022, EGU22-3319,, 2022.


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