Climatic Change

, Volume 109, Supplement 1, pp 71–94 | Cite as

Potential increase in floods in California’s Sierra Nevada under future climate projections

  • Tapash DasEmail author
  • Michael D. Dettinger
  • Daniel R. Cayan
  • Hugo G. Hidalgo


California’s mountainous topography, exposure to occasional heavily moisture-laden storm systems, and varied communities and infrastructures in low lying areas make it highly vulnerable to floods. An important question facing the state—in terms of protecting the public and formulating water management responses to climate change—is “how might future climate changes affect flood characteristics in California?” To help address this, we simulate floods on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the state’s primary catchment, based on downscaled daily precipitation and temperature projections from three General Circulation Models (GCMs). These climate projections are fed into the Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) hydrologic model, and the VIC-simulated streamflows and hydrologic conditions, from historical and from projected climate change runs, allow us to evaluate possible changes in annual maximum 3-day flood magnitudes and frequencies of floods. By the end of the 21st Century, all projections yield larger-than-historical floods, for both the Northern Sierra Nevada (NSN) and for the Southern Sierra Nevada (SSN). The increases in flood magnitude are statistically significant (at p <= 0.01) for all the three GCMs in the period 2051–2099. The frequency of flood events above selected historical thresholds also increases under projections from CNRM CM3 and NCAR PCM1 climate models, while under the third scenario, GFDL CM2.1, frequencies remain constant or decline slightly, owing to an overall drying trend. These increases appear to derive jointly from increases in heavy precipitation amount, storm frequencies, and days with more precipitation falling as rain and less as snow. Increases in antecedent winter soil moisture also play a role in some areas. Thus, a complex, as-yet unpredictable interplay of several different climatic influences threatens to cause increased flood hazards in California’s complex western Sierra landscapes.


Return Period Flood Risk Snow Water Equivalent Flood Discharge Variable Infiltration Capacity 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI) and the WCRP’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling (WGCM) for the WCRP CMIP3 multi-model dataset. Support of this dataset is provided by the Office of Science, U.S. Department of Energy. We acknowledge particularly the GCM modeling groups at CNRM, NCAR and GFDL for GCM output. Thanks to Michael Anderson and John T. Andrew at California Department of Water Resources for their valuable discussions. We thank three anonymous reviewers and editors for useful comments. The study was supported by both the CALFED Bay-Delta Program-funded postdoctoral fellowship grant provided to TD and the California Energy Commission-funded California Climate Change Center. Partial salary support for TD from Environment and Sustainability Initiative at UC San Diego (now Sustainability Solutions Institute) through a seed funding grant is also acknowledged. The California Energy Commission PIER Program through the California Climate Change Center, the NOAA RISA Program via the CNAP RISA, and DOE through grant DE-SC0002000, provided partial salary support for DC. Much of the contribution of HH was done while he was a Project Scientist at SIO. He is now partially funded through research projects VI-805-A9-224 and VI-808-A9-180 of the University of Costa Rica.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tapash Das
    • 1
    • 4
    Email author
  • Michael D. Dettinger
    • 1
    • 2
  • Daniel R. Cayan
    • 1
    • 2
  • Hugo G. Hidalgo
    • 3
  1. 1.Division of Climate, Atmospheric Sciences, and Physical Oceanography, Scripps Institution of OceanographyUniversity of California San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  2. 2.United States Geological SurveyLa JollaUSA
  3. 3.School of Physics and Center for Geophysical ResearchUniversity of Costa RicaSan JoseCosta Rica
  4. 4.CH2MHILL, Inc.San DiegoUSA

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