BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


GIRAF: Geoscience InfoRmation AFrica. Logo



A flood is an overflow of water that submerges land that is usually dry. In the sense of "flowing water", the word may also be applied to the inflow of the tide. Floods are an area of study of the discipline hydrology and are of significant concern in agriculture, civil engineering and public health.

Floods can also occur in rivers when the flow rate exceeds the capacity of the river channel, particularly at bends or meanders in the waterway. Floods often cause damage to homes and businesses if they are in the natural flood plains of rivers. While riverine flood damage can be eliminated by moving away from rivers and other bodies of water, people have traditionally lived and worked by rivers because the land is usually flat and fertile and because rivers provide easy travel and access to commerce and industry.

Floods can happen on flat or low-lying areas when water is supplied by rainfall or snowmelt more rapidly than it can either infiltrate or run off. The excess accumulates in place, sometimes to hazardous depths. Surface soil can become saturated, which effectively stops infiltration, where the water table is shallow, such as a floodplain, or from intense rain from one or a series of storms. Infiltration also is slow to negligible through frozen ground, rock, concrete, paving, or roofs. Areal flooding begins in flat areas like floodplains and in local depressions not connected to a stream channel, because the velocity of overland flow depends on the surface slope. Endorheic basins may experience areal flooding during periods when precipitation exceeds evaporation.

Slow-rising floods most commonly occur in large rivers with large catchment areas. The increase in flow may be the result of sustained rainfall, rapid snow melt, monsoons, or tropical cyclones. However, large rivers may have rapid flooding events in areas with dry climate, since they may have large basins but small river channels and rainfall can be very intense in smaller areas of those basins.

Flash floods are the most common flood type in normally-dry channels in arid zones, known as arroyos in the southwest United States and many other names elsewhere. In that setting, the first flood water to arrive is depleted as it wets the sandy stream bed. The leading edge of the flood thus advances more slowly than later and higher flows. As a result, the rising limb of the hydrograph becomes ever quicker as the flood moves downstream, until the flow rate is so great that the depletion by wetting soil becomes insignificant.

Coastal areas may be flooded by storm events at sea, resulting in waves over-topping defenses or in severe cases by tsunami or tropical cyclones. A storm surge, from either a tropical cyclone or an extratropical cyclone, falls within this category. Research from the NHC (National Hurricane Center) explains: "Storm surge is an abnormal rise of water generated by a storm, over and above the predicted astronomical tides. Storm surge should not be confused with storm tide, which is defined as the water level rise due to the combination of storm surge and the astronomical tide. This rise in water level can cause extreme flooding in coastal areas particularly when storm surge coincides with normal high tide, resulting in storm tides reaching up to 20 feet or more in some cases.

The amount, location, and timing of water reaching a drainage channel from natural precipitation and controlled or uncontrolled reservoir releases determines the flow at downstream locations. Some precipitation evaporates, some slowly percolates through soil, some may be temporarily sequestered as snow or ice, and some may produce rapid runoff from surfaces including rock, pavement, roofs, and saturated or frozen ground. The fraction of incident precipitation promptly reaching a drainage channel has been observed from nil for light rain on dry, level ground to as high as 170 percent for warm rain on accumulated snow.

The most important upslope factor in determining flood magnitude is the land area of the watershed upstream of the area of interest. Rainfall intensity is the second most important factor for watersheds of less than approximately 30 square miles or 80 square kilometres. The main channel slope is the second most important factor for larger watersheds. Channel slope and rainfall intensity become the third most important factors for small and large watersheds, respectively.

Floods also frequently damage power transmission and sometimes power generation, which then has knock-on effects caused by the loss of power. This includes loss of drinking water treatment and water supply, which may result in loss of drinking water or severe water contamination. It may also cause the loss of sewage disposal facilities. Lack of clean water combined with human sewage in the flood waters raises the risk of waterborne diseases, which can include typhoid, giardia, cryptosporidium, cholera and many other diseases depending upon the location of the flood.

In the riparian zone near rivers and streams, erosion control measures can be taken to try to slow down or reverse the natural forces that cause many waterways to meander over long periods of time. Flood controls, such as dams, can be built and maintained over time to try to reduce the occurrence and severity of floods as well. In the United States, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a network of such flood control dams.


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782