A Solution to Flooding: Climate Risk Assessment

This year’s Climate and Society class is out terminational  the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Yuanrong Zhou, C+S ’15

Flooding has been recognized as the most damaging natural disaster in U.S. and no state is immune. Property and crop damage caused by floods averaged almost $8 billion per year between 1981 and 2011 across the country.

The government has gone the extra mile to deal with this problem. Particularly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has developed flood hazard maps to show flooding risks from different locations. Moreover, in order to reduce the impacts of flooding on properties, FEMA has launched the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to provide insurance for property owners. According to NFIP, total flood insurance claims were more than $3.5 billion per year from 2005 to 2014.

Evacuation of Florida residents by national guardsmen during tropical storm Fay in 2008 Credit: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

Evacuation of Florida residents by national guardsmen during tropical storm Fay in 2008 Credit: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

Flooding is a natural disaster closely associated with climate. The typical causes of flooding include tropical storms and hurricanes, spring thaw, heavy rainfall and coastal storm. In addition, scientists have indicated that climate change will likely increase the risks of flooding. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and storms, could become more intense due to climate change. These precipitation-related extreme events will likely cause more severe floods. Therefore, the assessment of future flooding risk is essential to protect human lives and properties. This summer, I am fortunate to have an internship at Creating Intelligent Natural Capital Solutions (CINCS) to develop Climate IQ, an online tool for assessing flooding risks in Florida based on statistical modeling of various hydraulic as well as climate factors.

Florida is the top state in U.S. most at-risk of flooding due to both climatic and geographic reasons. Florida suffers from both river and coastal floods. And being located in the subtropics makes Florida vulnerable to tropical and subtropical cyclones, also known as hurricanes. From 2000 to 2013, 63 hurricanes or tropical storms have struck Florida and caused over $64 billion in damage collectively. Florida’s terrain is also relatively flat so it’s harder for water to drain.

Moreover, El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) plays a role influencing flooding situation in Florida. El Niño tends to bring in more frequent and stronger storms. For instance, during the 1997-98 El Niño, the repeated periods of heavy precipitation resulted in severe flooding in Florida costing $1 billion in damage.

Climate change will play the role influencing future flooding risk in Florida. Sea level rise will not only contribute to more intense storm surge but also more frequent minor floods. In addition, more frequent extreme weather events and more frequent super El Niños all could affect the flooding situation in Florida. Although it is impossible to avoid the occurrence of natural disasters, society can be better prepared by having a better handle on the risks.

The product I am developing during the summer internship is a modeling software solution that enables individuals and companies to cost-effectively assess their current and future climate risks. Our team analyzes multiple hydraulic factors and climate data to build a statistical model assessing flooding risk of any location in Florida.

One of the important features of Climate IQ is building on the flood hazard map determined by FEMA. This tool incorporates climate change effects, such as precipitation changes and sea level rise, into the risk assessment. We hope the users will improve their level of understanding of flood risk associated with their asset.

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