Brad Udall and Jonathan Overpeck just published this paper in the AGU journal Water Resources Research: Udall, B. and J. Overpeck (2017), The twenty-first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future, Water Resour. Res., 53, doi:10.1002/2016WR019638.
Between 2000 and 2014, annual Colorado River flows averaged 19% below the 1906–1999 average, the worst 15-year drought on record. At least one-sixth to one-half (average at one-third) of this loss is due to unprecedented temperatures (0.98C above the 1906–1999 average), confirming model-based analysis that continued warming will likely further reduce flows. Whereas it is virtually certain that warming will continue with additional emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, there has been no observed trend toward greater precipitation in the Colorado Basin, nor are climate models in agreement that there should be a trend. Moreover, there is a significant risk of decadal and multidecadal drought in the coming century, indicating that any increase in mean precipitation will likely be offset during periods of prolonged drought. Recently published estimates of Colorado River flow sensitivity to temperature combined with a large number of recent climate model-based temperature projections indicate that continued business-as-usual warming will drive temperature-induced declines in river flow, conservatively 220% by midcentury and 235% by end-century, with support for losses exceeding 230% at midcentury and 255% at end-century. Precipitation increases may moderate these declines somewhat, but to date no such increases are evident and there is no model agreement on future precipitation changes. These results, combined with the increasing likelihood of prolonged drought in the river basin, suggest that future climate change impacts on the Colorado River flows will be much more serious than currently assumed, especially if substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions do not occur.
Plain Language Summary
Between 2000 and 2014, annual Colorado River flows averaged 19% below the 1906–1999 average, the worst 15-year drought on record. Approximately one-third of the flow loss is due to high temperatures now common in the basin, a result of human caused climate change. Previous comparable droughts were caused by a lack of precipitation, not high temperatures. As temperatures increase in the 21st century due to continued human emissions of greenhouse gasses, additional temperature-induced flow losses will occur. These losses may exceed 20% at mid-century and 35% at end-century. Additional precipitation may reduce these temperature-induced losses somewhat, but to date no precipitation increases have been noted and climate models do not agree that such increases will occur. These results suggest that future climate change impacts on the Colorado River will be greater than currently assumed. Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will lead to lower future temperatures and hence less flow loss.
Good stuff from a couple of bright guys!
"Years of drought and famine come and years of flood and famine come, and the climate.and the climate is not changed with dance, libation or prayer. " - John Wesley Powell