Jennifer Rukavina is the Chief Meteorologist for WPSD Local 6 in Paducah, KY where climate and weather are always making an impact.

Simulated Flash Flooding Could Save Lives

  • Jan 5, 2016

Flash flooding claimed scores of lives across the U.S. in 2015. Twenty-six major disaster declarations were made in the name of flooding. As heavy downpours increase in frequency, millions of people will be susceptible to this rapid impact natural disaster. El Niño may also contribute to an increase in events in the next several months for parts of the country.

The New Year's flood in the Mississippi River Valley is the most recent example of how a single event can take lives and destroy property with very little in the way of time to react. You can prepare people as much as humanly possible but until it impacts them specifically, you are sort of speaking and dealing with the unknown.

Sandbagging efforts along the Mississippi River

Sandbagging efforts along the Mississippi River.

Our region is no stranger to extreme river flooding and flash flooding (urban) events. Rather than looking back, I want to introduce you to the technology and the advancements coming our way to help get the warnings out faster in these type of events, specifically flash flooding.

In 2012, Project FLASH began simulating real-time flash flooding events using hydrological model data and high resolution rainfall observations.

Most of us recognize or at least have heard of the spring 2015 flooding in Oklahoma and Texas including the Red River. Below is a before and after of the flooding. 

Satellite imagery of Red River flooding in spring 2015

Satellite imagery of Red River flooding in spring 2015.

Credit:

More recently we watched a well-forecast event unfold in the Carolinas thanks to an off-shore hurricane named Joaquin. As the rain began to fall, I started archiving FLASH data to see just how this new simulation would perform alongside the outcome.
 


This particular animation I compiled displays the simulated surface water flow (normalized by drainage area) drawing from MRMS radar-only rainfall rates at a 5-minute resolution. Not only is it visually enlightening, more importantly, it makes huge strides in improving short-term forecasting and flash flood probabilities. One important result is that the image shows what forced flash flooding would look like unfolding with the rainfall rates and totals being observed on radar.

This can help forecasters/meteorologists put out longer lead times for Flash Flood Warnings, even on a small scale. In fact, many flash flood events are small scale in nature compared to a river flooding or inland flooding event, and why it can be so difficult to get ahead of.

An added benefit to modern day warnings is that they are constructed by using polygons rather than entire county borders. Meteorologists can warn just a few miles of residents and businesses that sit along a creek bed rather than alerting an entire county where a majority of residents would otherwise be unaffected.

The next animation is a look at the Paducah, Ky. flash flooding event that called for multiple water rescues at sunrise on July 7, 2015.
 


In a two-hour period of time (4:00-6:00 a.m.), 6 inches of rain fell on one of the most flood prone areas in town, Perkins Creek. Public reports of flooding were hard to harvest since many were sleeping. Early risers encountered the waters as the Flash Flood Warning was issued around 5:15. FLASH was able to force the accumulating rain on radar into a simulated hydrograph showing the likelihood of flash flooding as the event was ongoing.

Word is that some of this technology may be introduced into forecasting in a more official capacity within the next year or so. Minutes matter when it concerns getting the public to respond to flash flooding. Minutes may be all they have to find higher ground. Minutes could very well be what we gain in lead time to saves lives and evolve the future of flash flood warnings.