Climatic Change

, Volume 147, Issue 3–4, pp 585–599 | Cite as

National-scale analysis of low flow frequency: historical trends and potential future changes

  • A. L. Kay
  • V. A. Bell
  • B. P. Guillod
  • R. G. Jones
  • A. C. Rudd


The potential impact of climate change on hydrological extremes is of increasing concern across the globe. Here, a national-scale grid-based hydrological model is used to investigate historical trends and potential future changes in low flow frequency across Great Britain. The historical analyses use both observational data (1891–2015) and ensemble data from a regional climate model (1900–2006). The results show relatively few significant trends in historical low flows (2- or 20-year return period), whether based on 7- or 30-day annual minima. Significant negative trends seen in some limited parts of the country when using observational data are generally not seen when using climate model data. The future analyses use climate model ensemble data for both near future and far future time periods (2020–2049 and 2070–2099 respectively), which are compared to a baseline sub-period from the historical ensemble (1975–2004). The results show future reductions in low flows, which are generally larger in the south of the country, at the higher (20-year) return period, and for the later time period. Reductions are more limited if the estimates of future potential evaporation include the effect of increased carbon dioxide concentrations on stomatal resistance. Such reductions in river flow could have significant impacts on the aquatic environment and on agriculture, and present a challenge for water managers, especially as reductions in water supply are likely to occur alongside increases in demand.


Drought Low flows River flow Hydrology Great Britain 



This study is an outcome of MaRIUS (MAnaging the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of droughts and water Scarcity), funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council’s Drought and Water Scarcity programme (NE/L010208/1). We thank the Met Office National Climate Information Centre (for the 5-km temperature data) and two anonymous reviewers.

Supplementary material

10584_2018_2145_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (1.6 mb)
ESM 1 (PDF 1640 kb)


  1. Arnell NW, Lloyd-Hughes B (2014) The global-scale impacts of climate change on water resources and flooding under new climate and socio-economic scenarios. Clim Chang 122:127–140CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barlow RE, Bartholomew DJ et al (1972) Statistical inference under order restrictions; the theory and application of isotonic regression. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Bell VA, Davies HN et al (2013) Developing a large-scale water-balance approach to seasonal forecasting: application to the 2012 drought in Britain. Hydrol Process 27(20):3003–3012Google Scholar
  4. Bell VA, Kay AL et al (2012) How might climate change affect river flows across the Thames Basin? An area-wide analysis using the UKCP09 Regional Climate Model ensemble. J Hydrol 442–443:89–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bell VA, Kay AL et al (2016) An assessment of the possible impacts of climate change on snow and peak river flows across Britain. Clim Chang 136(3):539–553CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bell VA, Kay AL et al (2007) Development of a high resolution grid-based river flow model for use with regional climate model output. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci 11(1):532–549CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bell VA, Kay AL et al (2009) Use of soil data in a grid-based hydrological model to estimate spatial variation in changing flood risk across the UK. J Hydrol 377(3–4):335–350CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Borgomeo E, Mortazavi-Naeini M et al (2016) Trading-off tolerable risk with climate change adaptation costs in water supply systems. Water Resour Res 52(2):622–643CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Caillouet L, Vidal J-P et al (2017) Ensemble reconstruction of spatio-temporal extreme low-flow events in France since 1871. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci 21(6):2923–2951CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Charlton MB, Arnell NW (2014) Assessing the impacts of climate change on river flows in England using the UKCP09 climate change projections. J Hydrol 519:1723–1738CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Christierson BV, Vidal J-P, Wade SJ (2012) Using UKCP09 probabilistic climate information for UK water resource planning. J Hydrol 424–425:48–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Compo GP, Whitaker JS et al (2011) The twentieth century reanalysis project. Q J Royal Meteorol Soc 137(654):1–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Crooks SM, Kay AL (2015) Simulation of river flow in the Thames over 120 years: evidence of change in rainfall-runoff response? J Hydrol: Regional Studies 4:172–195Google Scholar
  14. Dai A (2013) Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models. Nat Clim Chang 3:52–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dewes CF, Rangwala I et al (2017) Drought risk assessment under climate change is sensitive to methodological choices for the estimation of evaporative demand. PLoS One 12(3):e0174045Google Scholar
  16. Gosling SN, Taylor RG et al (2011) A comparative analysis of projected impacts of climate change on river runoff from global and catchment-scale hydrological models. Hydrol Earth Sys Sci 15:279–294CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Guillod BP, Jones RG et al (2017) Weather@home 2: validation of an improved global-regional climate modelling system. Geosci Model Dev 10:1849–1872CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Guillod BP, Jones RG et al (2018) A large set of potential past, present and future hydro-meteorological time series for the UK. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci 22:611–634.
  19. Giuntoli I, Vidal J-P et al (2015) Future hydrological extremes: the uncertainty from multiple global climate and global hydrological models. Earth System Dynamics 6(1):267–285CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hannaford J (2015) Climate-driven changes in UK river flows: a review of the evidence. Prog Phys Geogr 39(1):29–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hannaford J, Buys G et al (2013) The influence of decadal-scale variability on trends in long European streamflow records. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci 17(7):2717–2733CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hannaford J, Marsh T (2006) An assessment of trends in UK runoff and low flows using a network of undisturbed catchments. Int J Climatol 26(9):1237–1253CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hough M, Jones RJA (1997) The United Kingdom Meteorological Office rainfall and evaporation calculation system: MORECS version 2.0—an overview. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci 1(2):227–239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Jiménez Cisneros BE, Oki T et al. (2014) Freshwater resources. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC [Field CB et al. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, pp. 229–269Google Scholar
  25. Kay AL (2016) A review of snow in Britain: the historical picture and future projections. Prog Phys Geogr 40(5):676–698CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kay AL, Bell VA, Blyth EM et al (2013) A hydrological perspective on evaporation: historical trends and future projections in Britain. J Water Clim Change 4(3):193–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kay AL, Crooks SM (2014) An investigation of the effect of transient climate change on snowmelt, flood frequency and timing in northern Britain. Int J Climatol 34(12):3368–3381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kay AL, Davies HN et al (2009) Comparison of uncertainty sources for climate change impacts: flood frequency in England. Clim Chang 92(1–2):41–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kay AL, Jones DA (2012) Transient changes in flood frequency and timing in Britain under potential projections of climate change. Int J Climatol 32(4):489–502CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kendon M, Marsh T, Parry S (2013) The 2010-2012 drought in England and Wales. Weather 68(4):88–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Keller VDJ, Tanguy M et al (2015) CEH-GEAR: 1 km resolution daily and monthly areal rainfall estimates for the UK for hydrological and other applications. Earth Syst Sci Data 7:143–155CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Massey N, Jones R et al (2015) weather@home—development and validation of a very large ensemble modelling system for probabilistic event attribution. Quart J Roy Meteor Soc 141:1528–1545CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Maxey R, Cranston M et al. (2012). The use of deterministic and probabilistic forecasting in countrywide flood guidance in Scotland, in: BHS Eleventh National Symposium, Hydrology for a Changing World, pp 01–07.
  34. Monteith JL (1965) Evaporation and environment. Symp Soc Exp Biol 19:205–234Google Scholar
  35. Murphy JM, Sexton DMH et al (2009) UK climate projections science report: climate change projections. Met Office Hadley Centre, ExeterGoogle Scholar
  36. Oudin L, Hervieu F et al (2005) Which potential evapotranspiration input for a lumped rainfall-runoff model? Part 2—towards a simple and efficient potential evapotranspiration model for rainfall-runoff modelling. J Hydrol 303:290–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Price D, Hudson K et al. (2012) Operational use of a grid-based model for flood forecasting, in: Proceedings of the ICE, Water Management, 65–77Google Scholar
  38. Prudhomme C, Giuntoli I et al (2014) Hydrological droughts in the 21st century, hotspots and uncertainties from a global multimodel ensemble experiment. PNAS 111:3262–3267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Prudhomme C, Young A et al (2012) The drying up of Britain? A national estimate of changes in seasonal river flows from 11 Regional Climate Model 1070 simulations. Hydrol Process 26(7):1115–1118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Riahi K, Rao S et al (2011) RCP 8.5—a scenario of comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions. Clim Chang 109:33–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Roudier P, Andersson JCM et al (2016) Projections of future floods and hydrological droughts in Europe under a +2°C global warming. Clim Chang 135:341–355CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Rudd AC, Bell VA, Kay AL (2017) National-scale analysis of simulated hydrological droughts (1891-2015). J Hydrol 550:368–385CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Rudd AC, Kay AL (2016) Use of very high resolution climate model data for hydrological modelling: estimation of potential evaporation. Hydrol Res 47(3):660–670Google Scholar
  44. Seiller G, Roy R, Anctil F (2017) Influence of three common calibration metrics on the diagnosis of climate change impacts on water resources. J Hydrol 547:280–295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Sheffield J, Wood EF, Roderick ML (2012) Little change in global drought over the past 60 years. Nature 491:435–438CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Soulsby C, Helliwell RC et al (1997) Seasonal snowpack influence on the hydrology of a sub-arctic catchment in Scotland. J Hydrol 192:17–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Sperna Weiland FC, van Bewek LPH et al (2012) Global patterns of change in discharge regimes for 2100. Hydrol. Earth Sys. Sci. 16:1047–1062CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Svensson C, Kundzewicz ZW, Maurer T (2005) Trend detection in river flow series: 2. Flood and low-flow index series. Hydrol Sci J 50(5):811–824CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Tanguy M, Dixon H et al (2016) Gridded estimates of daily and monthly areal rainfall for the United Kingdom (1890-2015) [CEH-GEAR]. NERC Environ Inf Data Centre.
  50. Trenberth KE, Dai A et al (2014) Global warming and changes in drought. Nat Clim Chang 4(1):17–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Van Lanen HAJ, Laaha G et al (2016) Hydrology needed to manage droughts: the 2015 European case. Hydrol Process 30:3097–3104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Vetter T, Reinhardt J et al (2017) Evaluation of sources of uncertainty in projected hydrological changes under climate change in 12 large-scale river basins. Clim Chang 141:419–433CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Watts G, Battarbee RW et al (2015) Climate change and water in the UK – past changes and future prospects. Prog Phys Geogr 39:6–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Zaidman MD, Keller V, Young AR (2002) Low flow frequency analysis: guidelines for best practice. R&D Technical Report W6-064/TR1. Bristol, Environment AgencyGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. L. Kay
    • 1
  • V. A. Bell
    • 1
  • B. P. Guillod
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  • R. G. Jones
    • 2
    • 5
  • A. C. Rudd
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for Ecology and HydrologyWallingfordUK
  2. 2.Environmental Change InstituteUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK
  3. 3.Institute for Environmental DecisionsETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  4. 4.Institute for Atmospheric and Climate ScienceETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  5. 5.Met Office Hadley CentreExeterUK

Personalised recommendations