Assessing the impacts of climate change on fluvial processes: using a physically-based model to determine hydrologic responses of the Slate River
Master of Environmental Studies
DisciplineEnvironmental Studies : Northern Environments & Cultures
Soil and Water Assessment Tool
Topography, geology and soils
Flora & fauna
MetadataShow full item record
Watershed models are an important tool in regional planning and conservation efforts. They can provide valuable insight into the potential impacts of different land use changes and future climate change scenarios on water resources, which can lead to better, more informed decision making. Climate impacts, in particular, add a new level of uncertainty with regard to freshwater supplies as the hydrological cycle is intimately linked with changes in atmospheric temperatures. The main objective of this study is to investigate the extent of long-term climate change on streamflow and stream temperature within an agriculturally defined watershed in Northern Ontario. For this purpose, the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) model was utilized to provide a better understanding of how hydrological processes in the Slate River Watershed will alter in response to long-term climate change scenarios. The SWAT model is a distributed/semi-distributed physically-based continuous model, developed by the USDA for the management of agricultural watersheds, and is currently one of the most popular watershed-based models used in climate change analysis of snowmelt dominated watersheds. Historic flow data was compared to a discharge model that reflected four climate models driven by SRES A1B and A2 through the middle and end of the century. Hydrology modelling was enhanced with stream temperature analysis to gain a comprehensive understanding of the extent of changing climate regimes on the Slate River. A linear regression approach representing a positive relationship between stream temperature and air temperature was used to determine the thermal classification of the Slate River. Our results indicated that the Slate River was well within the warm-water character regime. Unusual high stream temperatures were recorded at mid- August; these were accompanied by low water levels and a lack of riparian vegetative cover at the recording site, providing a possible explanation for such temperature anomalies. The results of the flow discharge modelling supported our hypothesis that tributaries within our ecosystem would experience increasing water stress in a warming climate as the average total discharge from the Slate River decreased in both climate scenarios at the middle and end of the century. Although the lack of accurate subsurface soil data within the study region prevented our discharge model from quantifying the changes in stream discharge, the strong correlation between the observed and simulated flow data as reflected by a 0.92 r² statistic gave us confidence that discharge from the Slate River will continue to follow a decreasing trend as climate change persists into the future. This study aims to support the future endeavours of hydrologic modelling of watersheds in Northern Ontario by illustrating the current capabilities and limits of climate change analysis studies within this region.