Date of Award:

2014

Document Type:

Thesis

Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)

Department:

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Advisor/Chair:

David G. Tarboton

Co-Advisor/Chair:

Charles P. Hawkins

Abstract

A major challenge in freshwater ecosystem management is to predict future changes in streamflow regime. This thesis focused on identifying and modeling specific characteristics of streamflow that are important to stream ecosystems. The need to evaluate the potential impacts of climate change on stream ecosystems makes it important to study how streamflow regime may change. In this thesis we sought to advance understanding of the effect of climate change on streamflow regime by (1) examining the spatial variation in streamflow attributes across the continental US, (2) modeling how these streamflow attributes vary with current climate and watershed features, and (3) using this model with future climate projections of changes in precipitation and temperature to predict how streamflow attributes change with climate change. We used long-term daily flow measurements for 601 gauged streams whose watersheds were in relatively unimpaired condition to characterize streamflow regimes. Sixteen streamflow variables were identified which in our judgment sufficiently characterized aspects of the streamflow regime most relevant to stream ecosystem structure and function. These are computed for each stream. Principal component analysis with Varimax rotation reduced the dimensionality to five uncorrelated streamflow factors that quantify lowflow, magnitude, flashiness, timing and constancy. These independent factors were used to hereafter classify the streams based on distances in factor space into three broad classes which were further divided into eight classes. We used Random Forests to develop a model to predict these stream classes using watershed and climate attributes. The model had an accuracy of about 75%. Downscaled climate projections of precipitation and temperature were used to predict the changes in these stream classes by 2100 using the RF model. Thirty-three percent of selected sites were predicted to change into a different stream class by 2100. The least changes were predicted in snow-fed streams in the west while most of changes were predicted for rain-fed small perennial streams and intermittent streams in the central and eastern US. Class changes predicted, due to projected climate change provide a basis for (i) considering the extent of projected changes and (ii) formulating approaches to protect ecosystems that may be subject to change.