Characterizing Drought Behavior in the Colorado River Basin Using Unsupervised Machine Learning

April, 2022


Drought is a pressing issue for the Colorado River Basin (CRB) due to the social and economic value of water resources in the region and the significant uncertainty of future drought under climate change. Here, we use climate simulations from various Earth System Models (ESMs) to force the Variable Infiltration Capacity hydrologic model and project multiple drought indicators for the sub-watersheds within the CRB. We apply an unsupervised machine learning (ML) based on Non-Negative Matrix Factorization using K-means clustering (NMFk) to synthesize the simulated historical, future, and change in drought indicators. The unsupervised ML approach can identify sub-watersheds where key changes to drought indicator behavior occur, including shifts in snowpack, snowmelt timing, precipitation, and evapotranspiration. While changes in future precipitation vary across ESMs, the results indicate that the Upper CRB will experience increasing evaporative demand and surface-water scarcity, with some locations experiencing a shift from a radiation-limited to a water-limited evaporation regime in the summer. Large shifts in peak runoff are observed in snowmelt-dominant sub-watersheds, with complete disappearance of the snowmelt signal for some sub-watersheds. The work demonstrates the utility of the NMFk algorithm to efficiently identify behavioral changes of drought indicators across space and time and to quickly analyze and interpret hydro climate model results.

Key Points

  • Unsupervised machine learning automatically identifies key sub-watersheds with significant changes in their future drought indicators
  • In the Colorado River Basin mountains, distinct differences in future runoff seasonality and intensity changes are established
  • Significant uncertainty in drought behavior is observed among the applied climate models
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