Precipitation and Damaging Floods:
Trends in the United States, 1932-1997

Roger A. Pielke, Jr. and Mary W. Downton

Environmental and Societal Impacts Group
National Center for Atmospheric Research*

6 January 2000

Journal of Climate

*The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.


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Abstract

The poor relationship between what climatologists, hydrologists, and other physical scientists call floods, and those floods which actually cause damage to life or property, has limited what can be reliably said about the causes of observed trends in damaging floods. It further limits what can be said about future impacts of floods on society based on predicted changes in the global hydrological cycle. This paper presents a conceptual framework for the systematic assessment of the factors which condition observed trends in flood damage. Using the framework, it assesses the role that variability in precipitation has in damaging flooding in the United States at national and regional levels. Three different measures of flood damage - absolute, per capita, and per unit wealth - each lead to different conclusions about the nature of the flood problem. At a national level, of the 10 precipitation measures examined in this study, the ones most closely related to flood damage are the number of 2-day heavy rainfall events and the number of wet days. Heavy rainfall events are defined relative to a measure of average rainfall in each area, not as absolute thresholds. The study indicates that the growth in recent decades in total damage is related to both climate factors and societal factors: increased damage is associated with increased precipitation and with increasing population and wealth. At the regional level, this study reports a stronger relationship between precipitation measures and flood damage, and indicates that different measures of precipitation are most closely related to damage in different regions. This study suggests that climate plays an important, but by no means determining, role in the growth in damaging floods in the United States in recent decades.


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