Identifying threshold responses of Australian dryland rivers to future hydroclimatic change

Zacchary T. Larkin, Timothy J. Ralph, Stephen Tooth, Kirstie A. Fryirs, Alex Carthey

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Rivers provide crucial ecosystem services in water-stressed drylands. Australian dryland rivers are geomorphologically diverse, ranging from through-going, single channels to discontinuous, multi-channelled systems, yet we have limited understanding of their sensitivity to future hydroclimatic changes. Here, we characterise for the first time the geomorphology of 29 dryland rivers with catchments across a humid to arid gradient covering >1,800,000 km2 of continental eastern and central Australia. Statistical separation of five specific dominantly alluvial river types and quantification of their present-day catchment hydroclimates enables identification of potential thresholds of change. Projected aridity increases across eastern Australia by 2070 (RCP4.5) will result in ~80% of the dryland rivers crossing a threshold from one type to another, manifesting in major geomorphological changes. Dramatic cases will see currently through-going rivers (e.g. Murrumbidgee, Macintyre) experience step changes towards greater discontinuity, characterised by pronounced downstream declines in channel size and local termination. Expanding our approach to include other river styles (e.g. mixed bedrock-alluvial) would allow similar analyses of dryland rivers globally where hydroclimate is an important driver of change. Early identification of dryland river responses to future hydroclimatic change has far-reaching implications for the ~2 billion people that live in drylands and rely on riverine ecosystem services.

Original languageEnglish
Article number6653
Number of pages15
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Early online date20 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 01 Dec 2020


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