Journal of Geographical Sciences ›› 2020, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (9): 1401-1418.doi: 10.1007/s11442-020-1789-5

• Research Articles • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Differential changes in precipitation and runoff discharge during 1958-2017 in the headwater region of Yellow River of China

HOU Bingfei1,2(), JIANG Chao1,2, SUN Osbert Jianxin1,2,*()   

  1. 1. School of Ecology and Nature Conservation, Beijing Forestry University, Beijing 100083, China
    2. Institute of Forestry and Climate Change Research, Beijing Forestry University, Beijing 100083, China
  • Received:2020-03-22 Accepted:2020-06-08 Online:2020-09-25 Published:2020-11-25
  • Contact: SUN Osbert Jianxin;
  • About author:Hou Bingfei (1985–), PhD candidate, specialized in global change ecology. E-mail:
  • Supported by:
    National Key Research and Development Program of China(2016YFC0502104)


Maintenance of steady streamflow is a critical attribute of the continental river systems for safeguarding downstream ecosystems and agricultural production. Global climate change imposes a potential risk to water supply from the headwater by changing the magnitude and frequency of precipitation and evapotranspiration in the region. To determine if and to what extent the recent climate changes affected streamflow in major river systems, we examined the pattern of temporal variations in precipitation, temperature, evapotranspiration and changes in runoff discharge during 1958-2017 in the headwater region of the Yellow River in northeastern Tibetan Plateau. We identified 1989 as the turning point for a statistically significant 14% reduction in streamflow discharge (P < 0.05) for the period 1989-2017 compared with 1958-1988, approximately coinciding with changes in the monthly distribution but not the interannual variations of precipitation, and detected a mismatch between precipitation and runoff after 2000. Both annual precipitation and runoff discharge displayed four- and eight-year cyclic patterns of changes for the period 1958-1988, and a six-year cyclic pattern of changes for the period 1989-2017, with two intensified two-year cyclic patterns in the changes of precipitation and a three-year cyclic pattern in the change of runoff further detected for the later period. Our results indicate that the temporal changes in runoff are not strictly consistent with the temporal variations of precipitation in the headwater region of Yellow River during the period 1958-2017. In particular, a full recovery in annual precipitation was not reflected in a full recovery in runoff toward the end of the study period. While a review of literature yielded no apparent evidence of raised evapotranspiration in the region due to recent warming, we draw attention to increased local retention of rainwater as a possible explanation of differential changes in precipitation and runoff.

Key words: drought, climate variability, precipitation-runoff relationship, headwater region of Yellow River