Philip Bubeck, Antje Otto, and Juergen Weichselgartner
Floods remain the most devastating natural hazard globally, despite substantial investments in flood prevention and management in recent decades. Fluvial floods, such as the ones in Pakistan in 2010 and Thailand in 2011, can affect entire countries and cause severe economic and human losses. Also, coastal floods can inflict substantial harm owing to their destructive forces in terms of wave and tidal energy. A flood type that received growing attention in recent years is flooding from pluvial events (heavy rainfall). Even though these are locally confined, their sudden onset and unpredictability pose a danger to areas that are generally not at risk from flooding. In the future, it is projected that flood risk will increase in many regions both because of the effects of global warming on the hydrological cycle and the continuing concentration of people and economic assets in risk-prone areas.
Floods have a large variety of societal impacts that span across space and time. While some of these impacts are obvious and have been well researched, others are more subtle and less is known about their complex processes and long-term effects. The most immediate and apparent impact of floods is direct damage caused by physical contact between floodwaters and economic assets, cultural heritage, or human beings, with the result for humans being injuries and deaths. Direct flood damage can amount to billions of US dollars for single events, such as the floods in the Danube and Elbe catchment in Central Europe in 2002 and 2013. More indirect economic implications are the losses that occur outside of the flood event in space and time, such as losses due to business disruption. The flood in Thailand in 2011, for instance, resulted in a lack of auto parts supplies and consequently the shutdown of car manufacturing within and outside the flood zone.
Floods also have long-term indirect impacts on flood-affected people and communities. Experiencing property damage and losing important personal belongings can have a negative psychological effect on flood victims. Much less is known about this type of flood impact: how long do these impacts last? What makes some people or communities recover faster than others from financial losses and emotional stress? Moreover, flood impacts are not equally distributed across different groups of society. Often, poor, elderly, and marginalized societal groups are particularly vulnerable to the effects of flooding inasmuch as these groups generally have little social, human, and financial coping capacities. In many countries, women regularly bear a disproportionately high burden because of their societal status.
Finally, severe floods often provide so-called windows of opportunities, enabling rapid policy change, resulting in new flood risk management policies. Such newly adopted policy arrangements can lead to societal conflicts over issues of interests, equity, and fairness. For instance, flood events often trigger large-scale investment in flood defense infrastructure, which are associated with high construction costs. Although these costs are usually borne by the taxpayer, often only a small proportion of society shares in their benefits. In addition, societal conflict can arise concerning where to build structural measures; what impacts these measures have on the ground regarding economic development potentials, different kinds of uses, and nature protection; and which effects are expected downstream. In such controversies, issues of participation and decision making are central and often highly contested.
While floods are usually associated with negative societal impacts in industrialized countries, they also have beneficial impacts on nature and society. In many parts of the world, the livelihood of millions of people depends on the recurring occurrence of flooding. For instance, farming communities in or near floodplains rely upon regular floodwaters that carry nutrients and sediments, enriching the soil and making it fertile for cultivation.
Parvin Sultana and Paul Thompson
Floodplains are ecologically diverse and important sources of livelihood for rural people. Bangladesh is one of the most floodplain-dominated countries and supports the highest density of rural population in the world. The experience of Bangladesh in floodplain management efforts provides evidence, lessons, and insights on a range of debates and advances in the management of floodplain natural resources, the challenges of climate change, and the role of local communities in sustaining these resources and thereby their livelihoods. Although floodplain areas are primarily used for agriculture, the significance and value of wild common natural resources—mainly fish and aquatic plants—as sources of income and nutrition for floodplain inhabitants has been underrecognized in the past, particularly with respect to poorer households. For example, capture fisheries—a common resource—have been adversely impacted by the building of embankments and sluice gates and by the conversion of floodplains into aquaculture farms, which also exclude poor subsistence users from wetland resources. More generally, an overreliance on engineering “solutions” to flooding that focused on enabling more secure rice cultivation was criticized, particularly in the early 1990s during the Flood Action Plan, for being top down and for ignoring some of the most vulnerable people who live on islands in the braided main rivers. Coastal embankments have also been found to have longer term environmental impacts that undermine their performance because they constrain rivers, which silt up outside these polders, contributing, along with land shrinkage, to drainage congestion. Locals responded in an innovative way by breaking embankments to allow flood water and silt deposition in to regain relative land levels.
Since the early 1990s Bangladesh has adopted a more participatory approach to floodplain management, piloting and then expanding new approaches; these have provided lessons that can be more general applied within Asia and beyond. Participatory planning for water and natural resource management has also been adopted at the local level. Good practices have been developed to ensure that disadvantaged, poor stakeholders can articulate their views and find consensus with other local stakeholders. The management of smaller water-control projects (up to 1,000 ha) has been taken on by community organizations, and in larger water-control projects, there is collaborative management (also called “co-management”) among a hierarchy of groups and associations and the appropriate government agency. In fishery and wetland management, many areas have been managed by community organizations to sustainably restore common resources, although their rights to do this were lost in some cases. Associated with community management are successful experiments in adopting a more system-based approach, called “integrated floodplain management,” which balances the needs of agriculture and common natural resources, for example, by adopting crops with lower water demands that are resilient to less predictable rainfall and drier winters, and enable communities to preserve surface water for wild aquatic resources. Bangladesh also has had success in demonstrating the benefits of systematic learning among networks of community organizations, which enhances innovation and adaptation to the ever-changing environmental challenges in floodplains.
Russ S. Schumacher
Heavy precipitation, which in many contexts is welcomed because it provides the water necessary for agriculture and human use, in other situations is responsible for deadly and destructive flash flooding. Over the 30-year period from 1986 to 2015, floods were responsible for more fatalities in the United States than any other convective weather hazard (www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hazstats.shtml), and similar findings are true in other regions of the world. Although scientific understanding of the processes responsible for heavy rainfall continues to advance, there are still many challenges associated with predicting where, when, and how much precipitation will occur. Common ingredients are required for heavy rainfall to occur, but there are vastly different ways in which the atmosphere brings the ingredients together in different parts of the world. Heavy precipitation often occurs on very small spatial scales in association with deep convection (thunderstorms), factors that limit the ability of numerical models to represent or predict the location and intensity of rainfall. Furthermore, because flash floods are dependent not only on precipitation but also on the characteristics of the underlying land surface, there are fundamental difficulties in accurately representing these coupled processes. Areas of active current research on heavy rainfall and flash flooding include investigating the storm-scale atmospheric processes that promote extreme precipitation, analyzing the reasons that some rainfall predictions are very accurate while others fail, improving the understanding and prediction of the flooding response to heavy precipitation, and determining how heavy rainfall and floods have changed and may continue to change in a changing climate.
Evolution of Strategic Flood Risk Management in Support of Social Justice, Ecosystem Health, and Resilience
Throughout history, flood management practice has evolved in response to flood events. This heuristic approach has yielded some important incremental shifts in both policy and planning (from the need to plan at a catchment scale to the recognition that flooding arises from multiple sources and that defenses, no matter how reliable, fail). Progress, however, has been painfully slow and sporadic, but a new, more strategic, approach is now emerging.
A strategic approach does not, however, simply sustain an acceptable level of flood defence. Strategic Flood Risk Management (SFRM) is an approach that relies upon an adaptable portfolio of measures and policies to deliver outcomes that are socially just (when assessed against egalitarian, utilitarian, and Rawlsian principles), contribute positively to ecosystem services, and promote resilience. In doing so, SFRM offers a practical policy and planning framework to transform our understanding of risk and move toward a flood-resilient society. A strategic approach to flood management involves much more than simply reducing the chance of damage through the provision of “strong” structures and recognizes adaptive management as much more than simply “wait and see.” SFRM is inherently risk based and implemented through a continuous process of review and adaptation that seeks to actively manage future uncertainty, a characteristic that sets it apart from the linear flood defense planning paradigm based upon a more certain view of the future.
In doing so, SFRM accepts there is no silver bullet to flood issues and that people and economies cannot always be protected from flooding. It accepts flooding as an important ecosystem function and that a legitimate ecosystem service is its contribution to flood risk management. Perhaps most importantly, however, SFRM enables the inherent conflicts as well as opportunities that characterize flood management choices to be openly debated, priorities to be set, and difficult investment choices to be made.
Guy J.-P. Schumann
For about 40 years, with a proliferation over the last two decades, remote sensing data, primarily in the form of satellite and airborne imagery and altimetry, have been used to study floods, floodplain inundation, and river hydrodynamics. The sensors and data processing techniques that exist to derive information about floods are numerous. Instruments that record flood events may operate in the visible, thermal, and microwave range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Due to the limitations posed by adverse weather conditions during flood events, radar (microwave range) sensors are invaluable for monitoring floods; however, if a visible image of flooding can be acquired, retrieving useful information from this is often more straightforward. During recent years, scientific contributions in the field of remote sensing of floods have increased considerably, and science has presented innovative research and methods for retrieving information content from multi-scale coverages of disastrous flood events all over the world. Progress has been transformative, and the information obtained from remote sensing of floods is becoming mature enough to not only be integrated with computer simulations of flooding to allow better prediction, but also to assist flood response agencies in their operations.
Furthermore, this advancement has led to a number of recent and upcoming satellite missions that are already transforming current procedures and operations in flood modeling and monitoring, as well as our understanding of river and floodplain hydrodynamics globally. Global initiatives that utilize remote sensing data to strengthen support in managing and responding to flood disasters (e.g., The International Charter, The Dartmouth Flood Observatory, CEOS, NASA’s Servir and the European Space Agency’s Tiger-Net initiatives), primarily in developing nations, are becoming established and also recognized by many nations that are in need of assistance because traditional ground-based monitoring systems are sparse and in decline. The value remote sensing can offer is growing rapidly, and the challenge now lies in ensuring sustainable and interoperable use as well as optimized distribution of remote sensing products and services for science as well as operational assistance.
Glacier retreat is considered to be one of the most obvious manifestations of recent and ongoing climate change in the majority of glacierized alpine and high-latitude regions throughout the world. Glacier retreat itself is both directly and indirectly connected to the various interrelated geomorphological/hydrological processes and changes in hydrological regimes. Various types of slope movements and the formation and evolution of lakes are observed in recently deglaciated areas. These are most commonly glacial lakes (ice-dammed, bedrock-dammed, or moraine-dammed lakes).
“Glacial lake outburst flood” (GLOF) is a phrase used to describe a sudden release of a significant amount of water retained in a glacial lake, irrespective of the cause. GLOFs are characterized by extreme peak discharges, often several times in excess of the maximum discharges of hydrometeorologically induced floods, with an exceptional erosion/transport potential; therefore, they can turn into flow-type movements (e.g., GLOF-induced debris flows). Some of the Late Pleistocene lake outburst floods are ranked among the largest reconstructed floods, with peak discharges of up to 107 m3/s and significant continental-scale geomorphic impacts. They are also considered capable of influencing global climate by releasing extremely high amounts of cold freshwater into the ocean. Lake outburst floods associated with recent (i.e., post-Little Ice Age) glacier retreat have become a widely studied topic from the perspective of the hazards and risks they pose to human society, and the possibility that they are driven by anthropogenic climate change.
Despite apparent regional differences in triggers (causes) and subsequent mechanisms of lake outburst floods, rapid slope movement into lakes, producing displacement waves leading to dam overtopping and eventually dam failure, is documented most frequently, being directly (ice avalanche) and indirectly (slope movement in recently deglaciated areas) related to glacial activity and glacier retreat. Glacier retreat and the occurrence of GLOFs are, therefore, closely tied, because glacier retreat is connected to: (a) the formation of new, and the evolution of existing, lakes; and (b) triggers of lake outburst floods (slope movements).
Brett F. Sanders
Communities facing urban flood risk have access to powerful flood simulation software for use in disaster-risk-reduction (DRR) initiatives. However, recent research has shown that flood risk continues to escalate globally, despite an increase in the primary outcome of flood simulation: increased knowledge. Thus, a key issue with the utilization of urban flood models is not necessarily development of new knowledge about flooding, but rather the achievement of more socially robust and context-sensitive knowledge production capable of converting knowledge into action. There are early indications that this can be accomplished when an urban flood model is used as a tool to bring together local lay and scientific expertise around local priorities and perceptions, and to advance improved, target-oriented methods of flood risk communication.
The success of urban flood models as a facilitating agent for knowledge coproduction will depend on whether they are trusted by both the scientific and local expert, and to this end, whether the model constitutes an accurate approximation of flood dynamics is a key issue. This is not a sufficient condition for knowledge coproduction, but it is a necessary one. For example, trust can easily be eroded at the local level by disagreements among scientists about what constitutes an accurate approximation.
Motivated by the need for confidence in urban flood models, and the wide variety of models available to users, this article reviews progress in urban flood model development over three eras: (1) the era of theory, when the foundation of urban flood models was established using fluid mechanics principles and considerable attention focused on development of computational methods for solving the one- and two-dimensional equations governing flood flows; (2) the era of data, which took form in the 2000s, and has motivated a reexamination of urban flood model design in response to the transformation from a data-poor to a data-rich modeling environment; and (3) the era of disaster risk reduction, whereby modeling tools are put in the hands of communities facing flood risk and are used to codevelop flood risk knowledge and transform knowledge to action. The article aims to inform decision makers and policy makers regarding the match between model selection and decision points, to orient the engineering community to the varied decision-making and policy needs that arise in the context of DRR activities, to highlight the opportunities and pitfalls associated with alternative urban flood modeling techniques, and to frame areas for future research.
Dennis John Parker
Humankind is becoming increasingly dependent on timely flood warnings. Dependence is being driven by an increasing frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall events, a growing number of disruptive and damaging floods, and rising sea levels associated with climate change. At the same time, the population living in flood-risk areas and the value of urban and rural assets exposed to floods are growing rapidly. Flood warnings are an important means of adapting to growing flood risk and learning to live with it by avoiding damage, loss of life, and injury. Such warnings are increasingly being employed in combination with other flood-risk management measures, including large-scale mobile flood barriers and property-level protection measures.
Given that lives may well depend on effective flood warnings and appropriate warning responses, it is crucial that the warnings perform satisfactorily, particularly by being accurate, reliable, and timely. A sufficiently long warning lead time to allow precautions to be taken and property and people to be moved out of harm’s way is particularly important. However, flood warnings are heavily dependent on the other components of flood forecasting, warning, and response systems of which they are a central part. These other components—flood detection, flood forecasting, warning communication, and warning response—form a system that is characterized as a chain, each link of which depends on the other links for effective outcomes. Inherent weaknesses exist in chainlike processes and are often the basis of warning underperformance when it occurs.
A number of key issues confront those seeking to create and successfully operate flood warning systems, including (1) translating technical flood forecasts into warnings that are readily understandable by the public; (2) taking legal responsibility for warnings and their dissemination; (3) raising flood-risk awareness; (4) designing effective flood warning messages; (5) knowing how best and when to communicate warnings; and (6) addressing uncertainties surrounding flood warnings.
Flood warning science brings together a large body of research findings from a particularly wide range of disciplines ranging from hydrometeorological science to social psychology. In recent decades, major advances have been made in forecasting fluvial and coastal floods. Accurately forecasting pluvial events that cause surface-water floods is at the research frontier, with significant progress being made. Over the same time period, impressive advances in a variety of rapid, personalized communication means has transformed the process of flood warning dissemination. Much is now known about the factors that constrain and aid appropriate flood warning responses both at the individual and at organized, flood emergency response levels, and a range of innovations are being applied to improve response effectiveness. Although the uniqueness of each flood and the inherent unpredictability involved in flood events means that sometimes flood warnings may not perform as expected, flood warning science is helping to minimize these occurrences.
Gabriele Villarini and Louise Slater
Flood losses in the United States have increased dramatically over the course of the past century, averaging US$7.96 billion in damages per year for the 30-year period ranging from 1985 to 2014. In terms of human fatalities, floods are the second largest weather-related hazard in the United States, causing approximately 80 deaths per year over the same period. Given the wide-reaching impacts of flooding across the United States, the evaluation of flood-generating mechanisms and of the drivers of changing flood hazard are two areas of active research.
Flood frequency analysis has traditionally been based on statistical analyses of the observed flood distributions that rarely distinguish among physical flood-generating processes. However, recent scientific advances have shown that flood frequency distributions are often characterized by “mixed populations” arising from multiple flood-generating mechanisms, which can be challenging to disentangle. Flood events can be driven by a variety of physical mechanisms, including rain and snowmelt, frontal systems, monsoons, intense tropical cyclones, and more generic cyclonic storms.
Temporal changes in the frequency and magnitude of flooding have also been the subject of a large body of work in recent decades. The science has moved from a focus on the detection of trends and shifts in flood peak distributions towards the attribution of these changes, with particular emphasis on climatic and anthropogenic factors, including urbanization and changes in agricultural practices. A better understanding of these temporal changes in flood peak distributions, as well as of the physical flood-generating mechanisms, will enable us to move forward with the estimation of future flood design values in the context of both climatic and anthropogenic change.
Pedro J. Restrepo
The responsibility for official flood forecasting in the United States falls on the National Weather Service (NWS), a line office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. It is carried out at thirteen river forecast centers (RFCs) of the National Weather Service. It involves a series of coordinated steps leading to the publication of the final product. The first step is the acquisition of observations and forecasts. These always include precipitation and temperature observations and forecasts, and river flow and stage observations, including reservoir discharge observations and proposed operations, where available. Additionally, some RFCs also use additional information in a qualitative way, such as snow water equivalent, snow areal coverage, soil moisture, and soil temperature.
The next step in the process is the data quality control. Although some of the quality control is performed automatically, a considerable amount of effort is dedicated to a manual quality control process of precipitation and temperature observations. Precipitation observations from rain gages are used jointly with radar observations to arrive at mean areal quantitative precipitation estimates over individual watersheds.
The initial source of quantitative precipitation and temperature forecasts (QPF and QTF) is the numerical guidance that is prepared by the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP). That numerical guidance is refined further at the RFCs in coordination with the Weather Forecast Offices (WFOs). With the precipitation and temperature observations and forecasts on hand, it is possible to execute the hydrology models and issue forecasts but only at non-regulated watersheds.
The hydrologic forecasting system the NWS uses is known as the Community Hydrologic Prediction System, or CHPS. It is based on the Flood Early Warning System (FEWS) developed by the Dutch non-profit Deltares. The NWS forecasters make deterministic runs of CHPS by river groups, starting with the upstream-most watersheds and moving downstream. The forecasters then assess the model performance by comparing past forecasts with streamflow observations, and, optionally, modify model states, precipitation or temperature input, or even model parameters. This interaction between forecaster and model results is a key component of the forecasting process. Finally, the deterministic runs serve as “hot states” for the probabilistic forecasts.
There are three types of probabilistic forecasts, depending on the source of the precipitation and temperature forcings. The first and oldest technique is the Ensemble Prediction System. A more recent ensemble forecast approach is known as the Multi Model Ensemble Forecasting System (MMEFS). The most recent approach is the Hydrologic Ensemble Forecasting System (HEFS)
The final steps are the communication of forecasts and the performance evaluation. Forecasts are communicated via a number of means: internet, NOAA radio, specific arrangements for major government users, etc. Forecast performance is assessed internally and is used to decide on what watersheds are in need of recalibration due to significant changes to the basin characteristics, such as urban development, deforestation, reforestation, etc.