Climate change and hydrology at the prairie margin: historic and prospective future flows of Canada's Red Deer and other Rocky Mountain river

Laurens J. Philipsen, Karen M. Gill, Anita Shepherd, Stewart B. Rood (Corresponding Author)

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The South Saskatchewan River Basin of southern Alberta drains the transboundary central Rocky Mountains region and provides the focus for irrigation agriculture in Canada. Following extensive development, two tributaries, the Oldman and Bow rivers, were closed for further water allocations, whereas the Red Deer River (RDR) remains open. The RDR basin is at the northern limit of the North American Great Plains and may be suitable for agricultural expansion with a warming climate. To consider irrigation development and ecological impacts, it is important to understand the regional hydrologic consequences of climate change. To analyse historic trends that could extend into the future, we developed century‐long discharge records for the RDR, by coordinating data across hydrometric gauges, estimating annual flows from seasonal records, and undertaking flow naturalization to compensate for river regulation. Analyses indicated some coordination with the Pacific decadal oscillation and slight decline in summer and annual flows from 1912 to 2016 (−0.13%/year, Sen's slope). Another forecasting approach involved regional downscaling from the global circulation models, CGCMI‐A, ECHAM4, HadCM3, and NCAR‐CCM3. These projected slight flow decreases from the mountain headwaters versus increases from the foothills and boreal regions, resulting in a slight increase in overall river flows (+0.1%/year). Prior projections from these and other global circulation models ranged from slight decrease to slight increase, and the average projection of −0.05%/year approached the empirical trend. Assessments of other rivers draining the central and northern Rocky Mountains revealed a geographic transition in flow patterns over the past century. Flows from the rivers in Southern Alberta declined (around −0.15%/year), in contrast to increasing flows in north‐eastern British Columbia and the Yukon. The RDR watershed approaches this transition, and this study thus revealed regional differentiation in the hydrological consequences from climate change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2669-2684
Number of pages16
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number17
Early online date19 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 15 Aug 2018

Bibliographical note

This projected commenced with support from Alberta Agriculture and the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance, and subsequent funding was provided by Alberta Environment and Parks, Alberta Innovates, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and Agriculture and Agri‐Food Canada provided some climate data. This paper follows from an MSc thesis chapter by the first author, and we extend thanks to faculty advisors Cam Goater, Stefan Kienzle, and Larry Flanagan and to two anonymous reviewers for very helpful recommendations.


  • climate change
  • empirical trent analysis
  • hydroclimatic modelling
  • river discharge


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