Villarini: Midwest Floods More Frequent

In July 2014, floodwaters once again threatened to overtop the Coralville Dam.

Water rushes through the spillway of the Coralville Dam

Originally Posted on: February 25th, 2015

by Gary Galluzzo, Iowa Now

Floods are becoming increasingly more frequent over the Midwest and surrounding states, according to a study from the University of Iowa and IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering.

“It’s not that big floods are getting bigger, but that we have been experiencing a larger number of big floods,” says Gabriele Villarini, IIHR assistant research engineer and corresponding author on the paper, published Feb. 9 in the advance online edition of the journal Nature Climate Change. Villarini is also an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The IIHR researchers based their findings on daily records collected by the U.S. Geological Survey at 774 stream gauges in 14 states from 1962–2011, a data-collection period in common for all the stations.

They found that 264 (34 percent) of the stations had an increase in frequency in the number of flood events, while only 66 stations (nine percent) showed a decrease.

The findings likely come as no surprise to millions of people in the Midwest and bordering states. During the past several decades, large floods have plagued the region in 1993, 2008, 2011, 2013, and again in 2014. The floods have caused agricultural and economic losses in the billions of dollars and displaced thousands. “There is a pattern with increasing frequency of flood events from North Dakota south to Iowa and Missouri and east into Illinois, Indiana and Ohio,” says IIHR graduate student Iman Mallakpour, who is the lead author of the paper.

IIHR Assistant Research Engineer Gabriele Villarini.

IIHR Assistant Research Engineer Gabriele Villarini.

“We related this increasing number of big floods to changes in rainfall and temperature. There was an overall good match between the areas with increasing frequency of flood events and areas experiencing increasing frequency of heavy rainfall events,” adds Villarini.

He notes that seasonal analysis revealed that most of the flood peaks in the upper Midwest occur in the spring and stem primarily from snowmelt, rain falling on frozen ground, and rain-on-snow events. Interestingly, spring—in addition to being a season with increasing frequency of heavy rainfall—also has the strongest increase in temperature over most of the northern part of the region studied, he says.

The findings correspond well with current thinking among climate scientists about how global warming is affecting the hydrological cycle. In general, as the atmosphere becomes warmer, it can hold more moisture. One consequence of higher water vapor concentrations is more frequent, intense precipitation.

Villarini says the current study did not attempt to link the increase in the number of episodes to climate change.

“What causes the observed changes in precipitation and temperature is not something we have addressed, because of the difficulties in doing so just based on observational records,” Villarini says.

The study region included: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

The methodology used in the study involved establishing a threshold level of two flood events per year, on average, for each of the 774 stream gauges in the study, so as to focus on the larger flood events. In order to avoid counting the same event twice, the researchers allowed for the recording of only one event within a 15-day period.

The paper is available online: “The Changing Nature of Flooding across the Central United States.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources, the Iowa Flood Center and IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering funded the work. Funding also came from the National Science Foundation, under NSF CAREER Grant #AGS-1349827.