Increasing river discharge in the Eurasian Arctic: Consideration of dams, permafrost thaw, and fires as potential agents of change Academic Article uri icon


  • Discharge from Eurasian rivers to the Arctic Ocean has increased significantly in recent decades, but the reason for this trend remains unclear. Increased net atmospheric moisture transport from lower to higher latitudes in a warming climate has been identified as one potential mechanism. However, uncertainty associated with estimates of precipitation in the Arctic makes it difficult to confirm whether or not this mechanism is responsible for the change in discharge. Three alternative mechanisms are dam construction and operation, permafrost thaw, and increasing forest fires. Here we evaluate the potential influence of these three mechanisms on changes in discharge from the six largest Eurasian Arctic rivers (Yenisey, Ob', Lena, Kolyma, Pechora, and Severnaya Dvina) between 1936 and 1999. Comprehensive discharge records made it possible to evaluate the influence of dams directly. Data on permafrost thaw and fires in the watersheds of the Eurasian Arctic rivers are more limited. We therefore use a combination of data and modeling scenarios to explore the potential of these two mechanisms as drivers of increasing discharge. Dams have dramatically altered the seasonality of discharge but are not responsible for increases in annual values. Both thawing of permafrost and increased fires may have contributed to changes in discharge, but neither can be considered a major driver. Cumulative thaw depths required to produce the observed increases in discharge are unreasonable: Even if all of the water from thawing permafrost were converted to discharge, a minimum of 4 m thawed evenly across the combined permafrost area of the six major Eurasian Arctic watersheds would have been required. Similarly, sensitivity analysis shows that the increases in fires that would have been necessary to drive the changes in discharge are unrealistic. Of the potential drivers considered here, increasing northward transport of moisture as a result of global warming remains the most viable explanation for the observed increases in Eurasian Arctic river discharge.

publication date

  • 2004