Climatic Change

, Volume 116, Issue 1, pp 35-50

First online:

Modeling the transport of nutrients and sediment loads into Lake Tahoe under projected climatic changes

  • John RiversonAffiliated withTetra Tech Email author 
  • , Robert CoatsAffiliated withHydroikos Ltd.
  • , Mariza Costa-CabralAffiliated withHydrology Futures, LLC
  • , Michael DettingerAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey
  • , John ReuterAffiliated withUC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center
  • , Goloka SahooAffiliated withUC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center
  • , Geoffrey SchladowAffiliated withUC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center

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The outputs from two General Circulation Models (GCMs) with two emissions scenarios were downscaled and bias-corrected to develop regional climate change projections for the Tahoe Basin. For one model—the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory or GFDL model—the daily model results were used to drive a distributed hydrologic model. The watershed model used an energy balance approach for computing evapotranspiration and snowpack dynamics so that the processes remain a function of the climate change projections. For this study, all other aspects of the model (i.e. land use distribution, routing configuration, and parameterization) were held constant to isolate impacts of climate change projections. The results indicate that (1) precipitation falling as rain rather than snow will increase, starting at the current mean snowline, and moving towards higher elevations over time; (2) annual accumulated snowpack will be reduced; (3) snowpack accumulation will start later; and (4) snowmelt will start earlier in the year. Certain changes were masked (or counter-balanced) when summarized as basin-wide averages; however, spatial evaluation added notable resolution. While rainfall runoff increased at higher elevations, a drop in total precipitation volume decreased runoff and fine sediment load from the lower elevation meadow areas and also decreased baseflow and nitrogen loads basin-wide. This finding also highlights the important role that the meadow areas could play as high-flow buffers under climatic change. Because the watershed model accounts for elevation change and variable meteorological patterns, it provided a robust platform for evaluating the impacts of projected climate change on hydrology and water quality.