Is worst-case scenario streamflow drought underestimated in British Columbia? A multi-century perspective for the south coast, derived from tree-rings

Bethany Coulthard, Dan J. Smith, David M. Meko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

17 Scopus citations

Abstract

Recent streamflow droughts in south coastal British Columbia have had major socioeconomic and ecological impacts. Increasing drought severity under projected climate change poses serious water management challenges, particularly in the small coastal watersheds that serve as primary water sources for most communities in the region. A 332-year dendrohydrological record of regionalized mean summer streamflow for four watersheds is analyzed to place recent drought magnitudes in a long-term perspective. We present a novel approach for optimizing tree-ring based reconstructions in small watersheds in temperate environments, combining winter snow depth and summer drought sensitive proxies as model predictors. The reconstruction model, estimated by regression of observed flows on Tsuga mertensiana ring-width variables and a tree-ring derived paleorecord of the Palmer Drought Severity Index, explains 64% of the regionalized streamflow variance. The model is particularly accurate at estimating lowest flow events, and provides the strongest annually resolved paleohydrological record in British Columbia. The extended record suggests that since 1658 sixteen natural droughts have occurred that were more extreme than any within the instrumental period. Flow-duration curves show more severe worst-case scenario droughts and a higher probability of those droughts in the long-term reconstruction than in the hydrometric data. Such curves also highlight the value of dendrohydrology for probabilistic drought assessment. Our results suggest current water management strategies based on worst-case scenarios from historical gauge data likely underestimate the potential magnitudes of natural droughts. If the low-flow magnitudes anticipated under climate change co-occur with lowest possible natural flows, streamflow drought severities in small watersheds in south coastal British Columbia could exceed any of those experienced in the past ~350. years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)205-218
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Volume534
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016

Keywords

  • British Columbia
  • Dendrohydrology
  • Drought
  • Streamflow
  • Tree rings
  • Water management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology

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