Geography & Environment Publications

The Impact of Climate Change of Rivers and River Processes in Canada

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Bulletin 555


Geological Society of Canada Bulletin

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Rivers are sensitive to natural climate change as well as human impacts such as flow modification and land-use change. Climate change could cause changes to precipitation amounts, the intensity of cyclonic storms, the proportion of precipitation falling as rain, glacier mass balance, and the extent of permafrost; all of which affect the hydrology and morphology of river systems. Changes to the frequency and magnitude of flood flows present the greatest threat.

Historically, wetter periods are associated with significantly higher flood frequency and magnitude. These effects are reduced in drainage basins with large lakes or glacier storage. Alluvial rivers with fine-grained sediments are most sensitive, but all rivers will respond, except those flowing through resistant bedrock. The consequences of changes in flow include changes in channel dimensions, gradient, channel pattern, sedimentation, bank erosion rates and channel migration rates.

The most sensitive and vulnerable regions are in southern Canada, particularly those regions at risk of substantial increases in rainfall intensity and duration. In northern rivers, thawing of permafrost and changes o rover-ice conditions are important concerns. The type and magnitude of effects will be different between regions, as well as between small and large river basins. Time scales of change will range from years to centuries.

These changes will affect the use that we make of rivers and their floodplains and may require mitigative measures. Radical change is also possible. Climatic impacts will be ubiquitous and will be in addition to any existing and future direct human impacts on streamflow and rivers.


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