Saturday, August 1, 2015

Devastating floods might be more common than thought

Sasha Harris-Lovett in Sci-Tech Today: Keep the sandbags handy. Previous flood assessments have underestimated the actual risk of dangerous floods in many parts of the country, according to a new study. By looking back at the historical weather records, researchers have found an important synergy between two flood risk factors in coastal zones that has often gone overlooked.

In the past, engineers usually determined flood risk for coastal areas by looking at the separate probabilities of intense rainfall and the especially high seas caused by raging wind, called storm surges. But some of the worst floods in coastal areas are caused by the unfortunate concurrence of big storm surges with high rainfall -- a double-whammy for flooding, because it can result in the sea spilling over onto land while rivers and urban drainage systems overflow onto the streets.

By examining these two phenomena together, researchers showed that heavy precipitation and high seas are occurring in tandem more often in many coastal cities, especially along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the U.S. The results were published this week in Nature Climate Change.

"This is an important yet less studied aspect of vulnerability along the coastline," said Shaleen Jain, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Maine and one of the authors of the study. Nearly 40% of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties, researchers noted.

The scientists combed through historical records of rainfall, tide gauge readings and hurricane tracks dating back to 1900 for 30 port cities around the continental United States. They noted all the instances where high storm surges corresponded to strong rainfall.

Neither the frequency of big storm surges nor heavy rainfall alone have changed dramatically since 1900, but the probability of them occurring at the same time -- and the resulting devastating floods -- has shown a marked increase in many U.S. cities, said Thomas Wahl, a coastal engineer at the University of South Florida and the lead author of the study. These cities include Boston; New York City; Tampa, Fla.; Houston; San Diego; Los Angeles; and San Francisco....

Flooding in 2001 from Hurricane Gabriel near Tampa, Florida. Photo from NOAA

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