Projected Changes in the Frequency of Peak Flows along the Athabasca River: Sensitivity of Results to Statistical Methods of Analysis Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • Flows originating from alpine dominated cold region watersheds typically experience extended winter low flows followed by spring snowmelt and summer rainfall driven high flows. In a warmer climate, there will be a temperature-induced shift in precipitation from snowfall towards rain along with changes in precipitation intensity and snowmelt timing, resulting in alterations in the frequency and magnitude of peak flow events. This study examines the potential future changes in the frequency and severity of peak flow events in the Athabasca River watershed in Alberta, Canada. The analysis is based on simulated flow data by the variable infiltration capacity (VIC) hydrologic model driven by statistically downscaled climate change scenarios from the latest coupled model inter-comparison project (CMIP5). The hydrological model projections show an overall increase in mean annual streamflow in the watershed and a corresponding shift in the freshet timing to an earlier period. The river flow is projected to experience increases during the winter and spring seasons and decreases during the summer and early fall seasons, with an overall projected increase in peak flow, especially for low frequency events. Both stationary and non-stationary methods of peak flow analysis, performed at multiple points along the Athabasca River, show that projected changes in the 100-year peak flow event for the high emissions scenario by the 2080s range between 4% and 33% depending on the driving climate models and the statistical method of analysis. A closer examination of the results also reveals that the sensitivity of projected changes in peak flows to the statistical method of frequency analysis is relatively small compared to that resulting from inter-climate model variability.

publication date

  • July 1, 2019