IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Changes in surface and groundwater systems

Since the TAR there have been many studies related to trends in river flows during the 20th century at scales ranging from catchment to global. Some of these studies have detected significant trends in some indicators of river flow, and some have demonstrated statistically significant links with trends in temperature or precipitation; but no globally homogeneous trend has been reported. Many studies, however, have found no trends, or have been unable to separate the effects of variations in temperature and precipitation from the effects of human interventions in the catchment, such as land-use change and reservoir construction. Variation in river flows from year to year is also very strongly influenced in some regions by large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns associated with ENSO, NAO and other variability systems that operate at within-decadal and multi-decadal time-scales.

At the global scale, there is evidence of a broadly coherent pattern of change in annual runoff, with some regions experiencing an increase at higher latitudes and a decrease in parts of West Africa, southern Europe and southern Latin America (Milly et al., 2005). Labat et al. (2004) claimed a 4% increase in global total runoff per 1°C rise in temperature during the 20th century, with regional variation around this trend, but this has been challenged (Legates et al., 2005) due to the effects of non-climatic drivers on runoff and bias due to the small number of data points. Gedney et al., (2006) gave the first tentative evidence that CO2 forcing leads to increases in runoff due to the ecophysiological controls of CO2, although other evidence for such a relationship is difficult to find. The methodology used to search for trends can also influence results, since omitting the effects of cross-correlation between river catchments can lead to an overestimation of the number of catchments showing significant trends (Douglas et al., 2000). Runoff studies that show no trends are listed in the Chapter 1 Supplementary Material (SM).

Runoff in snow basins

There is abundant evidence for an earlier occurrence of spring peak river flows and an increase in winter base flow in basins with important seasonal snow cover in North America and northern Eurasia, in agreement with local and regional climate warming in these areas (Table 1.3). The early spring shift in runoff leads to a shift in peak river runoff away from summer and autumn, which are normally the seasons with the highest water demand, resulting in consequences for water availability (see Chapter 3). See Table SM1.1a for additional changes in runoff/streamflow.


Groundwater in shallow aquifers is part of the hydrological cycle and is affected by climate variability and change through recharge processes (Chen et al., 2002), as well as by human interventions in many locations (Petheram et al., 2001). In the Upper Carbonate Aquifer near Winnipeg, Canada, shallow well hydrographs show no obvious trends, but exhibit variations of 3 to 4 years correlated with changes in annual temperature and precipitation (Ferguson and George, 2003).


At present, no globally consistent trend in lake levels has been found. While some lake levels have risen in Mongolia and China (Xinjiang) in response to increased snow and ice melt, other lake levels in China (Qinghai), Australia, Africa (Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi), North America (North Dakota) and Europe (central Italy) have declined due to the combined effects of drought, warming and human activities. Within permafrost areas in the Arctic, recent warming has resulted in the temporary formation of lakes due to the onset of melting, which then drain rapidly due to permafrost degradation (e.g., Smith et al., 2005). A similar effect has been reported for a lake formed over an Arctic ice shelf (i.e., an epishelf lake), which disappeared when the ice shelf collapsed (Mueller et al., 2003). Permafrost and epishelf lakes are treated in detail by Le Treut et al. (2007). Observed trends in lake levels are listed in Table SM1.1b.