In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Water Resources and Climate Change

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Study of Past Water-Climate Interactions: Climate Forcings, Analytical Tools
  • The Study of Past Water-Climate Interactions: Paleohydroclimatology
  • The Use of Paleoclimate Studies for Water Management and Policy
  • The Study of Past Water-Climate Interactions: Local Human Influence on Hydrology and Climate
  • Treating Water and Climate in Global Models
  • Water and Climate as Treated in Regional Models
  • Water and Climate: Observational Technologies and Data
  • Projected Impacts of Climate Change on Water Resources
  • Observed Impacts of Climate Change on Water Resources
  • Projected and Observed Impacts of Climate Change on Human-Built Water Systems
  • Adaptation Strategies for Water Systems

Environmental Science Water Resources and Climate Change
Peter Gleick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0119


Natural and human-caused climate changes are strongly linked to the hydrologic cycle and freshwater resources. The hydrological cycle is a core part of climate dynamics involving all three common forms of water—ice, liquid, vapor—and the movement of water around the world. Changes in climate affect all aspects of the hydrologic cycle itself through alterations in temperature, precipitation patterns, storm frequency and intensity, snow and ice dynamics, the stocks and flows of water on land, and connections between sea levels and coastal wetlands and ecosystems. In addition, many of the social, economic, and political impacts of climate change are expected to be felt through changes in natural water resources and developed water systems and infrastructure. Extensive research extending back a century or more has been conducted around the world on all the subsection categories presented below. Despite many remaining uncertainties, major advances in basic scientific understanding of the complex processes surrounding freshwater and climate have been made in the past decadet. New ground- and space-based sensors collect far more water- and climate-related data in the 21st century than in the past. Improvements in both regional and global hydrological and climatological modeling have permitted far greater understanding of water and climate links and risks. And more water management institutions and managers are beginning to integrate information about past and future climatic variability into water system planning, design, and construction. Recent observational evidence indicates that the impacts of human-caused climatic changes can now be observed in some regions for a wide range of water resources, including changing evaporative demand associated with rising temperatures, dramatic changes in snow and ice, alterations in precipitation patterns and storm, rising sea levels, and effects on aquatic ecosystems.

General Overviews

The expanding ability to study and model complex atmospheric processes began to lead to an improved understanding of the links between climatic factors and the earth’s water balance at regional and global scales (Peixóto and Oort 1983). Since the mid- to late-1980s, core hydrology textbooks and syntheses such as those by Hornberger, et al. 2014 and Chow, et al. 1988 were integrating climate science and climatology. Early reviews of how human-caused climate change may affect hydrologic processes and managed water resources include Gleick 1989 and Leavesley 1994 with a focus on integrating regional hydrologic models with either output from general circulation models of the climate or hypothetical climate scenarios. Most recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has produced a series of reports over the years on a wide range of climate science, technology, and policy, including work directly focused on the issue of freshwater resources. The 2008 IPCC Technical Paper on Climate Change and Water addresses the interconnections among climate, freshwater, and biophysical and socioeconomic systems and touches on the links between rising sea levels and coastal freshwater systems and discusses adaptation of water systems to climate change (Bates, et al. 2008). Kundzewicz, et al. 2008 summarizes key findings on the impacts of climate change for freshwater systems and infrastructure. Whitehead, et al. 2009 reviewed the links between climate change and water quality. More recently, the IPCC Fifth Assessment by Jiménez Cisneros and Taikan Oki 2014 released an updated assessment of freshwater and climate in the impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability report. In the United States, Georgakakos, et al. 2014 prepared a comprehensive overview of climate and water impacts for the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences assessed both model projections and current observations.

  • Bates, B., Z. W. Kundzewicz, S. Wu, and J. Palutikof. 2008. Climate change and water. Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports are among the most important, integrated, international assessments of climate science. This specific report summarizes the science around climate and water as of the mid-2000s.

  • Chow, V. T., D. R. Maidment, and L. W. Mays. 1988. Applied hydrology. McGraw-Hill Series in Water Resources and Environmental Engineering. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    One of the all-time classic hydrologic textbooks.

  • Georgakakos, A., P. Fleming, M. Dettinger, et al. 2014. Water Resources. In Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. Edited by J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, 69–112. U.S. Global Change Research Program.

    The United States prepares a periodic national assessment of climate science. This paper provides a comprehensive summary of the water resource findings for the third such assessment.

  • Gleick, P. H. 1989. Climate change, hydrology, and water resources. Reviews of Geophysics 27.3: 329–344.

    DOI: 10.1029/RG027i003p00329

    An early comprehensive review of methods for assessing climate and water impacts.

  • Hornberger, George M., Patricia L. Wiberg, Jeffrey P. Raffensperger, and Paolo D’Odorico. 2014. Elements of Physical Hydrology. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    A leading textbook on physical hydrology, including information on climate change and water.

  • Jiménez Cisneros, Blanca E., and Taikan Oki. 2014. Freshwater resources. In Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Part A: Global and sectoral aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Edited by C. B. Field, V. R. Barros, D. J. Dokken, et al., 229–269. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) includes detailed assessments of impacts, adaptation, and risk. This paper summarizes the freshwater-related science on climate change for the IPCC.

  • Kundzewicz, Z. W., L. J. Mata, N. W. Arnell, et al. 2008. The implications of projected climate change for freshwater resources and their management. Hydrological Sciences Journal 53.1: 3–10.

    DOI: 10.1623/hysj.53.1.3

    This paper summarizes the key findings of the freshwater chapter of the fourth IPCC assessment, focused on projections of climate change impacts on freshwater resources and implications for management, adaptation, and risk.

  • Leavesley, George H. 1994. Modeling the effects of climate change on water resources—a review. In Assessing the impacts of climate change on natural resource systems. Edited by Kenneth D. Frederick and Norman J. Rosenberg, 159–177. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-011-0207-0_8

    A comprehensive review as of the mid-1990s of the first-generation assessments of the impacts of climate change for water resources.

  • National Research Council. 2012a. Climate change: Evidence, impacts, and choices: Set of 2 booklets, with DVD. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

    A comprehensive review from the US National Academy of Sciences on the science of climate change risks in the United States.

  • Peixóto, José P., and Abraham H. Oort. 1983. The atmospheric branch of the hydrological cycle and climate. In Variations in the global water budget. Edited by Alayne Street-Perrott, Max Beran, Robert Ratcliffe, 5–65. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-6954-4_2

    An early discussion of how to integrate hydrologic variables into global water budget modeling and climate models.

  • Whitehead, P. G., R. L. Wilby, R. W. Battarbee, M. Kernan, A. J. Wade. 2009. A review of the potential impacts of climate change on surface water quality. Hydrological Sciences Journal 54.1: 101–123.

    DOI: 10.1623/hysj.54.1.101

    A good summary of the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on water quality, with some regional examples, as of the mid-2000s.

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