Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society

Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society

September 24, 2013 10:12 ET

Canada's Premier Atmospheric Science Journal Looks at the Columbia River

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(Marketwired - Sept. 24, 2013) - On the eve of World Rivers Day and BC Rivers Day, a special issue of Atmosphere-Ocean, one of Canada's leading research journals, explores a range of pressing questions about the Columbia River. A transboundary Canada-US basin, the Columbia supports tremendous hydropower generation, fisheries, and irrigation, and can be susceptible to flooding. It even has its own international law - the Columbia River Treaty - which is currently under review.

Improved water resource and environmental management requires improved science, and could also benefit from enhanced cross-border cooperation on research. Twenty-nine scientists from ten institutions in both Canada and the US contributed cutting-edge work to this special issue. Some key outcomes include:

  • Canadian headwaters are projected to experience, on average, lower summer flows, higher flows the rest of the year, and higher average annual flows than seen historically;

  • A variety of semi-regular climatic oscillations, such as El Niño-Southern Oscillation, help explain year- to-year variation in river flows and may be used to improve seasonal water supply forecasts;

  • Studies of the US portion of the basin reveal that local-scale water and environmental management behaviours deeply impact long-term water resource changes and vulnerabilities;

  • Extreme warm days and extreme wet days are projected to increase under anticipated climate changes, whereas extreme cold days are expected to decrease;

  • A newly established glacier monitoring program in the upper Columbia helps reveal the significant contributions of glacial melt to river flows, and the water supply implications of receding glaciers.

"The value of improved scientific knowledge isn't just some vague ideal," said Dr. Sean Fleming, the Atmosphere-Ocean associate editor who convened the special issue. "For example, prior work suggests hydroelectric utilities in the Columbia Basin can save hundreds of millions of dollars a year by using improved climate-based water supply forecasts."

The Columbia starts on the glacierized western slopes of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia. It flows generally south and west, accumulating runoff from seven US states before emptying into the Pacific Ocean at the Washington-Oregon border. It carries the most water of any basin on the west coast of the Americas.

Established in 1963, Atmosphere-Ocean is the peer-reviewed scientific research journal of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (CMOS) and is published by Taylor and Francis. Summaries of the articles with corresponding contact information are provided in the accompanying document. The full-text articles are freely available upon request. This press release is under embargo until 24 Sep 2013.

Contact information for individual study authors is additionally provided with the summary of findings below.

Findings and contact information

ARTICLE: From Icefield to Estuary: A Brief Overview and Preface to the Special Issue on the Columbia Basin

Scientific contact:

Sean W. Fleming, PhD, PPhys, ACM, PGeo
Associate Editor and Special Issue Convener, Atmosphere Ocean, 604.664.9245
Stephen Déry, PhD
Guest co-editor, Atmosphere-Ocean, 250.960.5193

This preface provides a brief overview of the Columbia Basin and introduces the seven research articles in the special issue.

ARTICLE: Water Supply, Demand, and Quality Indicators for Assessing the Spatial Distribution of Water Resource Vulnerability in the Columbia River Basin

Scientific contact:

Heejun Chang, PhD
Professor and Chair, Department of Geography
Faculty Fellow, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Associated Faculty, Institute for Asian Studies
Portland State University
424-G Cramer Hall, Portland, OR 97201 USA, 503.725.3162
  1. We completed the most detailed analysis to date of the likely causes of water vulnerability in terms of supply, demand, and water quality in the Columbia River Basin (CRB), a complex river system that supports more than 6 million people and 20 billion dollars in annual agricultural production.

  2. In the Willamette Valley, the most densely populated portion of the CRB, degraded water quality rather than water scarcity is the main concern, suggesting that future investments should concentrate on addressing water quality concerns and cleaning up polluted waterways rather than increasing the supply of water.

  3. In the upper reaches of the CRB, human population, agriculture, and energy production are in increasingly intense competition for water resources, pointing to the need for greater coordination of water management throughout the region.

ARTICLE: Spatial and Temporal Change in the Hydro-Climatology of the Canadian Portion of the Columbia River Basin under Multiple Emissions Scenarios

Scientific contact:

Aurelia Werner
Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium
University House 1, PO Box 3060 Stn CSC, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC V8W 3R4 Canada, 250.853.3246
  1. We used several Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP3) climate models and one hydrologic model that included a simple representation of glaciers to look at how temperature, precipitation, snow, soil moisture, evaporation and runoff will likely change in the next 100 years over the Canadian portion of the Columbia River.

  2. Using more recent climate models and more aggressive emissions trajectories, we find that summer precipitation will decrease and annual precipitation will increase more than was found by earlier studies. These changes contribute to larger summer streamflow decreases and larger annual streamflow increases projected in the Canadian versus the US component of the Columbia River basin. Lastly, with this more spatially detailed analysis we are able to discern stronger projected decreases in summer runoff in the Kootenay River than in the Upper Columbia River.

  3. We demonstrate that the Canadian portion of the Columbia responds to climate change differently than the Columbia River Basin as a whole and highlight the need for sub-basin scale analysis with multiple models to best inform adaptation.

ARTICLE: The Role of Large-Scale Climate Modes in Regional Streamflow Variability and Implications for Water Supply Forecasting: A Case Study of the Canadian Columbia River Basin

Scientific contact:

Adam Gobena, PhD
Statistical Hydrologist
Generation Resource Management, BC Hydro
6911 Southpoint Drive, Burnaby, BC V3N 4X8 Canada
  • Relationships between Canadian Columbia stream flows and primary atmosphere-ocean climate signals, including El Niño-Southern Oscillation and several other climate modes, were investigated.

  • Variability in these atmosphere-ocean phenomena influences the seasonal timing and volume of stream flow through modulation of regional land surface climate.

  • Indices of these remote climate signals can be used to inform forecasts of seasonal water supply volume, particularly in cases where such forecasts are produced before observations of winter snowpack conditions become available.

ARTICLE: An Overview of the Columbia Basin Climate Change Scenarios Project: Approach, Methods, and Summary of Key Results

Scientific contact:

Alan F. Hamlet, PhD
Assistant Professor
Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, University of Notre Dame
156 Fitzpatrick Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556 USA, 574.631.7409
  1. The Columbia Basin Climate Change Scenarios Project (CBCCSP) was conceived as a comprehensive hydrologic database to support climate change planning, impacts assessment, and adaptation in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) by a diverse user community with varying technical capacity over a wide range of spatial scales.

  2. The results show widespread reductions in spring snowpack over most of the basin, shifts from snow and mixed-rain-and-snow to more rain-dominant behavior at the watershed scale, associated shifts in streamflow timing from spring and summer to winter for sub-basins with significant winter snow accumulation, changes in the timing of soil moisture recharge, and increased intensity of both floods and low flows. Simulated changes in spring snowpack and streamflow timing in the U.S. portions of the basin are, in general, larger than in the Canadian portions of the basin.

  3. The CBCCSP database has been a valuable resource which has dramatically reduced costs in a number of high-visibility climate change studies in the Pacific Northwest and western U.S. focused on technical coordination and planning.

ARTICLE: Glacier Meltwater Contributions and Glaciometeorological Regime of the Illecillewaet River Basin, British Columbia, Canada

Scientific contact:

Jocelyn Hirose, MSc, EPt
Dept. of Geography, University of Calgary
2500 University Dr. NW, Calgary, AB, T2N 1N4, or 403.220.8289
  1. We measured and modelled glacier runoff (melt of snow, ice, and firn, an intermediate state between snow and ice) contributions to streamflow in an upper headwaters catchment of the Columbia River Basin.

  2. We found from 2009 to 2011, that glacier runoff contributes approximately 10% to streamflow annually
    and in late summer 25%; a major portion (81%) of the late summer runoff is non-renewable glacier storage (ice and firn). Future scenarios show that to offset the glacier losses under a 1°C increase, winter precipitation would need to increase by 30%.

  3. This research used glacier measurements from within the Columbia River Basin to model glacier runoff, resulting in improved estimates of glacier melt contributions. Understanding the timing and concentration of glacier contributions to streamflow is crucial for ecosystems, municipalities, and hydro- electric generation.

ARTICLE: Climate and Streamflow Trends in the Columbia River Basin: Evidence for Ecological and Engineering Resilience to Climate Change

Scientific contact:

Julia Jones, PhD
Professor, College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University
104 CEOAS Administration Building, Corvallis, OR 97331-5503 USA, 541.737.1224
  1. This study examined the effects of climate warming over 1950-2010 on streamflow in both the headwaters (above dams) and the downstream reaches (below dams) of seven sub-basins of the Columbia River, including eastern, snow-dominated and western, rain-dominated sub-basins.

  2. In headwater sub-basins, annual snowmelt runoff peaks in five of seven headwaters basins shifted a few days earlier; in the lower reaches of these sub-basins, streamflow change was dominated by very strong signals associated with reservoir operation for flood control (reduced annual peak flows) and irrigation (augmented late summer low flows), as well as flow management for hydropower, navigation, and recreation.

  3. These findings indicate that to date, detectable climate-warming effects on streamflow have been limited to headwater portions of the Columbia River basin, and climate change signals are not evident downstream because they have been overprinted by flow regulation.

ARTICLE: Climate Change and Extremes in the Canadian Columbia Basin

Scientific Contact:

Trevor Murdock
Lead, Regional Climate Impacts Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium
University House 1, PO Box 3060 Stn CSC, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC V8W 3R4 Canada, 250.472.4681
  1. We analysed the projected changes in climate extremes in the Canadian portion of the Columbia Basin using results from the North American Regional Climate Change Assessment Program.

  2. Generally, increases in warm extremes, decreases in cold extremes, and increases in wet extremes were found. For example, associated with average annual warming of 1.8°C to 2.7°C we found a projected future (2050s) with 1.5 to 3.3 times as many warm summer days as in the past (1961-1990) and with 1.4 to 12.5 times as frequent extreme warm days (25-year historical waiting time).

  3. These findings are important because communities in the region are actively involved in planning processes to adapt to climate change, such as the Communities Adapting to Climate Change Initiative run by the Columbia Basin Trust.

Contact Information