The study shows how aerosols can have an impact on the natural environment and highlights the importance of considering these factors in assessments of future climate change, researchers said.
It is already established that increased burning of sulphurous coal up to the late 1970s led to additional aerosols in the atmosphere.
These are reflective and therefore reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface, an effect known as 'solar dimming'.
This dimming then started to reverse in Europe and North America with the introduction of clean air legislation and a widespread switch to cleaner fuels.
In the new study, researchers found that solar dimming increased river flows relative to that expected from surface meteorology, as the reduced amount of sunlight affected the rate of evaporation from the Earth's surface.
When the dimming began to reverse, reductions in river-flows were observed.    
"We detect the impact of solar dimming on enhanced river flows over regions in the heavily industrialised northern extra-tropics," said Nicola Gedney, from the Met Office in UK and lead author of the paper.
"We estimate that, in the most polluted central Europe river basin, this effect led to an increase in river flow of up to 25 percent when the aerosol levels were at their peak,
around 1980. With water shortages likely to be one of the biggest impacts of climate change in the future, these findings are important in making projections for the future," Gedney said.
The study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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