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By filtering the incoming climate signal when producing streamflow, river basins can attenuate—or amplify—projected increases in rainfall variability. A common perception is that river systems dampen rainfall variability by averaging spatial and temporal variations in their watersheds. However, by analyzing 671 watersheds throughout the United States, we find that many catchments actually amplify the coefficient of variation of rainfall, and that these catchments also likely amplify changes in rainfall variability. Based on catchment-scale water balance principles, we relate that faculty to the interplay between two fundamental hydrological processes: water uptake by vegetation and the storage and subsequent release of water as discharge. By increasing plant water uptake, warmer temperatures might exacerbate the amplifying effect of catchments. More variable precipitations associated with a warmer climate are therefore expected to lead to even more variable river flows—a significant potential challenge for river transportation, ecosystem sustainability and water supply reliability.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.