Global River Discharge and Water Temperature under Climate Change

M.T.H. van Vliet, W.H.P. Franssen, J.R. Yearsley, F. Ludwig, I. Haddeland, D.P. Lettenmaier, P. Kabat

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

455 Citations (Scopus)


Climate change will affect hydrologic and thermal regimes of rivers, having a direct impact on freshwater ecosystems and human water use. Here we assess the impact of climate change on global river flows and river water temperatures, and identify regions that might become more critical for freshwater ecosystems and water use sectors. We used a global physically based hydrological-water temperature modelling framework forced with an ensemble of bias-corrected general circulation model (GCM) output for both the SRES A2 and B1 emissions scenario. This resulted in global projections of daily river discharge and water temperature under future climate. Our results show an increase in the seasonality of river discharge (both increase in high flow and decrease in low flow) for about one-third of the global land surface area for 2071–2100 relative to 1971–2000. Global mean and high (95th percentile) river water temperatures are projected to increase on average by 0.8–1.6 (1.0–2.2) °C for the SRES B1–A2 scenario for 2071–2100 relative to 1971–2000. The largest water temperature increases are projected for the United States, Europe, eastern China, and parts of southern Africa and Australia. In these regions, the sensitivities are exacerbated by projected decreases in low flows (resulting in a reduced thermal capacity). For strongly seasonal rivers with highest water temperatures during the low flow period, up to 26% of the increases in high (95th percentile) water temperature can be attributed indirectly to low flow changes, and the largest fraction is attributable directly to increased atmospheric energy input. A combination of large increases in river temperature and decreases in low flows are projected for the southeastern United States, Europe, eastern China, southern Africa and southern Australia. These regions could potentially be affected by increased deterioration of water quality and freshwater habitats, and reduced water available for human uses such as thermoelectric power and drinking water production
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)450-464
JournalGlobal environmental change : human and policy dimensions
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • stream temperature
  • united-states
  • surface-water
  • change impact
  • potential impacts
  • ocean circulation
  • air temperatures
  • low flows
  • model
  • quality


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  • ESS-CC

    Project: Other

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