Glacial runoff buffers droughts through the 21st century

Published in Earth System Dynamics, 2022

Recommended citation: Ultee, L., Coats, S., and Mackay, J. (2022). "Glacial runoff buffers droughts through the 21st century." Earth System Dynamics 13: 935-959.

Global climate model projections suggest that 21st century climate change will bring significant drying in the terrestrial midlatitudes. Recent glacier modeling suggests that runoff from glaciers will continue to provide substantial freshwater in many drainage basins, though the supply will generally diminish throughout the century. In the absence of dynamic glacier ice within global climate models (GCMs), a comprehensive picture of future hydrological drought conditions in glaciated regions has been elusive. Here, we leverage the results of existing GCM simulations and a global glacier model to evaluate glacial buffering of droughts in the Standardized Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI). We compute one baseline version of the SPEI and one version modified to account for glacial runoff changing over time, and we compare the two for each of 56 large-scale glaciated basins worldwide. We find that accounting for glacial runoff tends to increase the multi-model ensemble mean SPEI and reduce drought frequency and severity, even in basins with relatively little (<2‚ÄČ%) glacier cover. When glacial runoff is included in the SPEI, the number of droughts is reduced in 40 of 56 basins and the average drought severity is reduced in 53 of 56 basins, with similar counts in each time period we study. Glacial drought buffering persists even as glacial runoff is projected to decline through the 21st century. Results are similar under representative concentration pathway (RCP) 4.5 and 8.5 emissions scenarios, though results for the higher-emissions RCP 8.5 scenario show wider multi-model spread (uncertainty) and greater incidence of decreasing buffering later in the century. A k-means clustering analysis shows that glacial drought buffering is strongest in moderately glaciated, arid basins.

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