University researchers develop international flood monitoring system

By: Jacob Bell
Publisher: The Diamondback
Published: October 10, 2014

From the National Wildlife Federation to the Natural Resources Defense Council, environmental organizations agree climate change has caused an upsurge in flooding in the U.S.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report this summer analyzing nuisance flooding — named for the infrastructure headaches it causes, such as road closures and building damage — in 45 NOAA water level gauge areas across the country. The report found flooding had increased in each of the studied areas — sometimes by more than 900 percent — over the past 50-plus years.

This growth in flooding isn’t isolated to the U.S. either; rising sea levels and more intense storms have placed countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Mozambique at high risk for floods as well, according to Integrated Regional Information Networks, a humanitarian news and analysis organization.

However, many other countries don’t have the same quality of weather-monitoring devices or abundance of flood data, which often puts them at even greater flood risk. Researchers at this university’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, Robert Adler and Huan Wu, hope their current work will help solve this problem.

Adler and Wu have developed the Global Flood Monitoring System, a nearly 10-year venture that provides localized flood data via the Internet.

The system works by taking global precipitation satellite data and plugging it into hydrology models that calculate water depth, stream flow and other factors that contribute to flooding. 

“That’s our starting point, to try to identify where you’re having an extreme event.” Adler said.

The system then takes those results and compares them against water-level thresholds created from more than a decade of compiled flood data.

“The end result is, when you’re looking at the day’s output from the model, you get a pattern of where we think floods are going on right now,” Adler said.

There is a six-hour time lag between the actual hydrological events and the system publishing its calculations, which can be found at Despite this lag, the system publishes data every three hours and can analyze flood factors such as stream flow at a resolution as low as one kilometer, meaning the system is both timely and precise.  

“Certainly don’t get the impression that it’s a perfect system, and it picks out every flood and it does it perfectly; it’s a mixed bag,” Adler said. “Obviously one of the things we spend time doing is validating how well the system does.”

One way the researchers gauge the system’s accuracy is through comparing its calculations to those of U.S. river forecasting centers, which provide highly detailed hydrology measurements. This comparison helps indentify the system’s limitations, and determine how well it’s working.

But while Adler and Wu work on perfecting their system, individuals and groups in more than 100 countries are using its data. Most notably, relief organizations including the United Nation’s World Food Programme to the International Committee of the Red Cross are utilizing the system to identify floods and deciding how best to deliver supplies to these areas, Adler said.

“They’re interested in, sort of, what’s happening, where it’s happening, when did it start, is it over … how does it compare with previous events?” Adler said. “And the kind of calculations we’re making gives them [this] information.”

For Wu, who grew up in China and lived near the country’s largest river, the Yangtze, the research hits close to home. 

“Every year for the monsoon season, there is flooding. Even when I was a child I saw that,” Wu said. “Flooding information can be really useful to saving lives, saving people.”

Reprinted from The Diamondback with permission.