Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

Regional Scale Modeling of Climate, Cryosphere, and Freshwater Discharge in Changing Coastal Mountain Environments

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  • The glaciated coastal mountain watersheds that drain into the Gulf of Alaska (GOA) provide a model laboratory to explore the challenges of hydrological modeling and study the impact of climate and glacier cover change on regional hydrology. The region is data-sparse and contains a complex assemblage of topography and land cover, including a system of mountain glaciers that are retreating at some of the highest rates on Earth. The high rates of runoff from precipitation and glacial melt delivered by coastal rivers influence ocean circulation patterns, rates of global sea level rise, and provide spawning habitat for the large salmon populations. Physically-based hydrological modeling of the major water budget components of the GOA, driven using historical reanalysis weather data and land cover, reveals that the modeled water budget components, particularly precipitation input, vary widely between commonly-used weather products. The majority of the large freshwater flux into the GOA is derived from distributed coastal streams rather than the large inland rivers. The modeled seasonal aggregated GOA hydrograph is dominated by the spring and early summer snowmelt, and supplemented by late summer glacial ice melt. Model results demonstrate good agreement with NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite data in terms of annual amplitudes and long term losses (ice loss), and suggest that existing GRACE solutions, previously reported to represent glacier mass balance alone, are actually measuring the full water budget of land and ice surfaces. An ensemble of climate models and future emissions scenarios were paired with systematically altered land cover to test the sensitivity of the hydrologic system to changes in regional climate patterns and glacier coverage representative of late twenty first century conditions. Compared with the hindcast simulations, the model results forced with increased regional air temperatures and precipitation inputs and reduced glacier cover produce an increase in the annual GOA freshwater discharge volume. The seasonal GOA hydrograph is flattened due to increased winter runoff from more winter rainfall and less snow accumulation, and lower levels of snowmelt and glacier ice contribution. Large uncertainties exist in the direction of change in the glacier runoff component, primarily due to uncertainties that exist in predicting glacier response to climate change. Hydrological modeling with high resolution and inclusion of relevant physical processes can produce significantly improved products that are of high value to and in demand by numerous other scientific communities. However, the value and accuracy of the output from the hydrologic model is highly dependent on the weather forcing quality. Given the considerable importance of quality weather forcing for hydrologic modeling, it is imperative to assess the suitability of multiple products by evaluating local and regional performance and accounting for uncertainty. Additional efforts should be made to improve the spatial resolution of the reanalysis through downscaling and to strategically increase the number of weather stations at high elevations and incorporate that data into weather forcing datasets.
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