Forested catchments are critical sources of freshwater used by society, but anthropogenic climate change can alter the amount of precipitation partitioned into streamflow and evapotranspiration, threatening their role as reliable fresh water sources. One such region in the eastern US is the heavily forested central Appalachian Mountains region that provides fresh water to local and downstream metropolitan areas. Despite the hydrological importance of this region, the sensitivity of forested catchments to climate change and the implications for long-term water balance partitioning are largely unknown. We used long-term historic (1950–2004) and future (2005–2099) ensemble climate and water balance data and a simple energy–water balance model to quantify streamflow sensitivity and project future streamflow changes for 29 forested catchments under two future Relative Concentration Pathways. We found that streamflow is expected to increase under the low-emission pathway and decrease under the high-emission pathway. Furthermore, despite the greater sensitivity of streamflow to precipitation, larger increases in atmospheric demand offset increases in precipitation-induced streamflow, resulting in moderate changes in long-term water availability in the future. Catchment-scale results are summarized across basins and the region to provide water managers and decision makers with information about climate change at scales relevant to decision making.
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