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Current and future risk of unprecedented hydrological droughts in Great Britain

Chan, W. C.H., Arnell, N. W. ORCID:, Darch, G., Facer-Childs, K., Shepherd, T. G. ORCID:, Tanguy, M. and van der Wiel, K. (2023) Current and future risk of unprecedented hydrological droughts in Great Britain. Journal of Hydrology, 625. 130074. ISSN 0022-1694

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2023.130074


The UK has experienced recurring hydrological droughts in the past and their frequency and severity are predicted to increase with climate change. However, quantifying the risks of extreme droughts is challenging given the short observational record, the multivariate nature of droughts and large internal variability of the climate system. We use EC-Earth time-slice large ensembles, which consist of 2000 years of data each for present-day, 2°C and 3°C conditions relative to pre-industrial, to drive hydrological models of river catchments in Great Britain (GB) to obtain a large set of plausible droughts. Since future warming is certain, the uncertainty in drought is mainly associated with uncertainty in precipitation. Estimates of unprecedented extremes show that the chance of a summer month in a given year drier than the observed driest summer (1995) is projected to increase with future warming (from 9% in the present-day (PD) to 18% in a 3°C warmer world (3C) for southeast England). For winter, the chance of a dry winter month drier than the observed driest winter (1991-92) slightly decreases (from 10% - PD to 8% - 3C for southeast England) but the chance of the driest winter does not change significantly with future warming. We add value to these probabilistic estimates by sampling for physical climate storylines of drought sequences characterised by dry spring-summers, autumn-winters and consecutive dry winters. Dry spring-summers are estimated to become drier with future warming primarily driven by reduced precipitation in summer. Dry autumn-winters may become wetter mainly driven by the general trend of more precipitation in winter although drought conditions triggered by moderate autumn-winter precipitation deficits may worsen given the higher likelihood of being followed by a dry summer. Similarly, drought impacts of consecutive dry winters, a particular risk for slow-responding catchments in the English lowlands, may worsen with future warming as the intervening summer is projected to become hotter and drier. These storylines can be used to stress-test hydrological systems and inform decision-making.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Science > School of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences > Department of Meteorology
ID Code:112811


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