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.
Giuliano Di Baldassarre
Fatalities and economic losses caused by floods are dramatically increasing in many regions of the world, and there is serious concern about future flood risk given the potentially negative effects of climatic and socio-economic changes. Over the past decades, numerous socio-economic studies have explored human responses to floods—demographic, policy and institutional changes following the occurrence of extreme events. Meanwhile, many hydrological studies have investigated human influences on floods, such as changes in frequency, magnitude, and spatial distribution of floods caused by urbanization or by implementation of risk reduction measures. Research in socio-hydrology is providing initial insights into the complex dynamics of risk resulting from the interplay (both responses and influences) between floods and people. Empirical research in this field has recently shown that traditional methods for flood risk assessment cannot capture the complex dynamics of risk emerging from mutual interactions and continuous feedback mechanisms between hydrological and social processes. It has also been shown that, while risk reduction strategies built on these traditional methods often work in the short term, they might lead to unintended consequences in the longer term. Besides empirical studies, a number of socio-hydrological models have been recently proposed to conceptualize human/flood interactions, to explain the dynamics emerging from this interplay, and to explore possible future trajectories of flood risk. Understanding the interplay between floods and societies can improve our ability to interpret flood risk changes over time and contribute to developing better policies and measures that will reduce the negative impacts of floods while maintaining the benefits of hydrological variability.
Scott C. Hagen, Davina L. Passeri, Matthew V. Bilskie, Denise E. DeLorme, and David Yoskowitz
The framework presented herein supports a changing paradigm in the approaches used by coastal researchers, engineers, and social scientists to model the impacts of climate change and sea level rise (SLR) in particular along low-gradient coastal landscapes. Use of a System of Systems (SoS) approach to the coastal dynamics of SLR is encouraged to capture the nonlinear feedbacks and dynamic responses of the bio-geo-physical coastal environment to SLR, while assessing the social, economic, and ecologic impacts. The SoS approach divides the coastal environment into smaller subsystems such as morphology, ecology, and hydrodynamics. Integrated models are used to assess the dynamic responses of subsystems to SLR; these models account for complex interactions and feedbacks among individual systems, which provides a more comprehensive evaluation of the future of the coastal system as a whole. Results from the integrated models can be used to inform economic services valuations, in which economic activity is connected back to bio-geo-physical changes in the environment due to SLR by identifying changes in the coastal subsystems, linking them to the understanding of the economic system and assessing the direct and indirect impacts to the economy. These assessments can be translated from scientific data to application through various stakeholder engagement mechanisms, which provide useful feedback for accountability as well as benchmarks and diagnostic insights for future planning. This allows regional and local coastal managers to create more comprehensive policies to reduce the risks associated with future SLR and enhance coastal resilience.
Pedro J. Restrepo
The U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) is the agency responsible for flood forecasting. Operational flow forecasting at the NWS is carried out at the 13 river forecasting centers for main river flows. Flash floods, which occur in small localized areas, are forecast at the 122 weather forecast offices.
Real-time flood forecasting is a complex process that requires the acquisition and quality control of remotely sensed and ground-based observations, weather and climate forecasts, and operation of reservoirs, water diversions, and returns. Currently used remote-sense observations for operational hydrologic forecasts include satellite observations of precipitation, temperature, snow cover, radar observations of precipitation, and airborne observations of snow water equivalent. Ground-based observations include point precipitation, temperature, snow water equivalent, soil moisture and temperature, river stages, and discharge. Observations are collected by a number of federal, state, municipal, tribal and private entities, and transmitted to the NWS on a daily basis.
Once the observations have been checked for quality, a hydrologic forecaster uses the Community Hydrologic Prediction System (CHPS), which takes care of managing the sequence of models and their corresponding data needs along river reaches. Current operational forecasting requires an interaction between the forecaster and the models, in order to adjust differences between the model predictions and the observations, thus improving the forecasts. The final step in the forecast process is the publication of forecasts.