Climate change impacts on rainfall extremes and water resource systems

I have made international contributions to three areas of climate change impacts research: the changing risks of extreme rainfall and flooding, developing climate change scenario methodologies for local and regional scale studies, and examining the impacts of climate change on water resource systems in the developed and developing world. This research has yielded important, and often fascinating, insights into the way our changing climate is affecting and will affect the way we manage water resources to minimise the potential impacts of floods and droughts and has demonstrated how sensitive hydrological systems are to relatively small changes in climate variability.

I will use my Philip Leverhulme Prize to extend my current work to better understand how global warming is affecting climate and hydrology in the Karakoram region of the Himalaya. The Asian ‘Water Towers’ of the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region, which provide a critical source of water for India, China and Pakistan, may be one of the most sensitive areas to global warming. Previous work has found significant trends in temperature in the region, with winter warming and summer cooling over the past 50 years which has led to reductions in river flows but expansion of glaciers. A study published in Nature in 2005 also suggested that the HKH region is

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Staff gauges for the flow gauging station at Besham.

“headed for a water supply crisis…better water management techniques can help, but cannot solve the problem without significant changes to agriculture, industry and lifestyle. Detailed studies of the future impact of global warming on water resources in [this region] are long overdue” (Barnett et al., 2005).

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Confluence of Gilgit and Indus rivers.

However, due to the rugged and mountainous nature of the region, observations are scarce and it is very difficult to collect field data. Key questions therefore are: (1) Can we use information from satellites and combine this with on-the-ground observations to understand how climate and hydrology in the Himalaya are responding to global warming? (2) How sensitive is the Himalayan region to global warming – do all areas show the same pattern of change or trends? (3) What are the causes of this variability and change? (4) How will future climate change affect the Himalayan water resource? Over 750 million people depend on water from the main Himalayan rivers: the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra. The research will try to establish the likely impacts of climate change on the region.

Dr Hayley Fowler
Newcastle University

Hayley was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2011; providing £70,000 over 36 months.