Publication

Amplification of flood frequencies with local sea level rise and emerging flood regimes

M. K. Buchanan, M. Oppenheimer, and R. E. Kopp (2017). Amplification of flood frequencies with local sea level rise and emerging flood regimes. Environmental Research Letters 12, 064009. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa6cb3.

Abstract

The amplification of flood frequencies by sea level rise (SLR) is expected to become one of the most economically damaging impacts of climate change for many coastal locations. Understanding the magnitude and pattern by which the frequency of current flood levels increase is important for developing more resilient coastal settlements, particularly since flood risk management (e.g. infrastructure, insurance, communications) is often tied to estimates of flood return periods. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report characterized the multiplication factor by which the frequency of flooding of a given height increases (referred to here as an amplification factor; AF). However, this characterization neither rigorously considered uncertainty in SLR nor distinguished between the amplification of different flooding levels (such as the 10% versus 0.2% annual chance floods); therefore, it may be seriously misleading. Because both historical flood frequency and projected SLR are uncertain, we combine joint probability distributions of the two to calculate AFs and their uncertainties over time. Under probabilistic relative sea level projections, while maintaining storm frequency fixed, we estimate a median 40-fold increase (ranging from 1- to 1314-fold) in the expected annual number of local 100-year floods for tide-gauge locations along the contiguous US coastline by 2050. While some places can expect disproportionate amplification of higher frequency events and thus primarily a greater number of historically precedented floods, others face amplification of lower frequency events and thus a particularly fast growing risk of historically unprecedented flooding. For example, with 50 cm of SLR, the 10%, 1%, and 0.2% annual chance floods are expected respectively to recur 108, 335, and 814 times as often in Seattle, but 148, 16, and 4 times as often in Charleston, SC.