Climatic Change

, Volume 156, Issue 1–2, pp 87–104 | Cite as

Assessing the degree of hydrologic stress due to climate change

  • R. J. NathanEmail author
  • T. A. McMahon
  • M. C. Peel
  • A. Horne


Hydrologists are commonly involved in impact, adaption and vulnerability assessments for climate change projections. This paper presents a framework for how such assessments can better differentiate between the impacts of climate change and those of natural variability, an important differentiation as it relates to the vulnerability to water availability under change. The key concept involved is to characterize “hydrologic stress” relative to the range of behaviour encountered under baseline conditions, where the degree to which climate change causes the behaviour of a system to shift outside this baseline range provides a non-dimensional measure of stress. The concept is applicable to any system that is subject to climate forcings, though the approach is applied here to a range of examples illustrative of many environmental and engineering applications. These include hydrologic systems that are dependent on the frequency of flows above or below selected thresholds, those that are dominated by storage and those which are sensitive to the sequencing of selected flow components. The analyses illustrate that systems designed or adapted to accommodate high variability are less stressed by a given magnitude of climate impacts than those operating under more uniform conditions. The metrics characterize hydrologic stress in a manner that can facilitate comparison across different regions, or across different assets within a region. Adoption of the approach requires reliance on the use of climate ensembles that represent aleatory uncertainty under both baseline and impacted conditions, and this has implications for how the outputs of climate models are provided and utilized.



Avril Horne gratefully acknowledges the funding provided by the Australian Research Council (LP170100598 and DE180100550).


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Infrastructure EngineeringUniversity of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia

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