Biological and Environmental Research - Earth and Environmental System Sciences
Earth and Environmental System Modeling

Attributing Increased River Flooding in the Future: Hydrodynamic Downscaling Reveals Role of Plant Physiological Responses to

Friday, December 15, 2017 - 13:40
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River flooding events, which are the most frequently occurring natural disaster today, are expected to become more frequent and intense in response to climate change. However, the magnitude of these changes remains debated, in part due to uncertainty in our understanding of the physical processes that contribute to these events and their representation in global climate models. While the intensification of precipitation has been shown to be a primary driver of increased flooding, plant physiological responses to increasing CO2 may also play an important role. As the atmospheric concentration of CO2 increases, plants may respond by reducing the width of their stomata (i.e. stomatal conductance), which can decrease water lost through transpiration and in turn maintain higher soil moisture levels. On long timescales, reduced transpiration has been shown to increase average runoff, but on short timescales elevated soil moisture can also increase instantaneous runoff by limiting the rate at which water is able to infiltrate the soil surface. Here, through hydrodynamic downscaling, we isolate the portion of flooding amplification that can be attributed to the physiological response to increasing CO2. This builds on a new analysis that has revealed such physiological effects can rival changes caused by the atmospheric response alone in the tails of the runoff distribution. We use a set of four simulations run with the Community Earth System Model: one pre-industrial control simulation and three others that are forced with four times CO2. In the three climate change simulations, the increased CO2 is applied only to the land-surface, only to the atmosphere, and to both, respectively. Thirty years of daily runoff from these experiments are used as input for the hydrodynamic CaMa-Flood model. Our results reveal that both the radiative and physiological responses to climate change contribute significantly to future changes in flood return period and inundated area. This implies that better constraining the sensitivity of stomatal conductance to CO2 is of first order importance to reducing uncertainty for potential flood frequency and associated risk in a changing climate.

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