Kingwood Greens Evacuation During Harvey by Jay Muscat

Study Suggests Large Cities Like Houston Can Intensify Rainfall and Runoff From Hurricanes

A November 2018 article appearing in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature found that urban growth can intensify both rainfall and runoff from hurricanes. Further, urban growth can increase the risk of flooding and shift the location of flooding. The article specifically studied the effects of Hurricane Harvey on Houston and found that urban growth increased the probability of such an extreme flood across the basin by 21X.

A sister publication, Scientific American, reviewed the article the same month and helped explain the findings in Nature.

The Nature study looks at two distinct effects of urbanization. The first is the impact of impervious surface on RUNOFF. The second is the impact of the urban landscape’s surface roughness on RAINFALL.

The Runoff Component

Numerous studies have looked at the relationship between percentage of impervious cover, runoff, and flooding – a well documented phenomenon. Impervious cover accelerates transport of rainfall from neighborhoods to rivers. That raises peak flows rather than spreading them out over time. Dr. William Dupre, professor emeritus from the University of Houston visualized the relationship this way.

Effect of Urbanization on Peak Stream Flows” by Dr. William Dupre, professor emeritus from the University of Houston.

Rainfall Component Much Less Studied

However, the effect of urban growth and a city’s surface topography on RAINFALL from hurricanes is much less studied. The authors say in Nature that, “Urbanization led to an amplification of the total rainfall along with a shift in the location of the maximum rainfall.” (Page 386).

“Much less is known regarding the urban effects on the organized tropical rainfall of a hurricane, in particular during one like hurricane Harvey, which stalled for several days.” They continue, “…experiments (with computer models) clearly show a large increase in rainfall arising from urbanization over the eastern part of the Houston area.”

The authors compared present and past urban landscapes and also modeled a scenario in which the entire region was cropland.

Mechanisms Responsible for Increase Rainfall

To understand the physical mechanisms responsible for the heavier rainfall, they analyzed the vertical convergence of winds and wind fields.

Kingwood Greens Evacuation During Harvey by Jay Muscat
Evacuation During Harvey. Photo courtesy of Jay Muscat.

“The enhanced rainfall … and the shift of rainfall … are tied to the storm system’s drag induced by large surface roughness,” say the authors.

Scientific American explains in more detail. Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who did not work on the study said, “We know cyclones are sensitive to characteristics of the surface—mountains, streams, marshland. This new twist is that cities have become big enough to tangibly alter the storm.” Said Gabriele Villarini, an environmental engineer at The University of Iowa and an author on the study, “We removed the urban areas from Houston and replaced them with cropland.”

“The presence of urban areas enhanced all the things you need to get heavy precipitation,” Villarini, one of the study’s authors says. “A stronger drag on the storm winds, associated with a larger surface roughness length” contributed to the increased rainfall.

Emanuel explained, “First, the artificial ruggedness of an urban area slows air down. Whenever air slows in a hurricane, he says, it gets shunted toward the center of the storm and up into the sky. That increases rainfall everywhere [in a metropolitan area].” He added, “A storm moves particularly slowly over downtown areas where buildings are tallest, but the winds bearing down from outside the city are still moving quickly. So, [the storm] is piling up on the city.”

Impact on and Implications for Houston

This increase in urban growth in flat terrain creates problems from a flood perspective, despite mitigation measures already in place.

Urbanization has increased the probability of an event like the flooding associated with Hurricane Harvey by about 21 times, say the authors in Nature on page 388.

The authors make several high-level recommendations.

  • Urban planning must take into account the compounded nature of the risk now recognized.
  • Flood mitigation strategies must recognize the effect of urbanization on hurricanes.
  • Weather and climate models must incorporate the effects of urbanization to increase forecast accuracy on local and regional levels.

“It is critical for the next generations of global climate models to be able to resolve the urban areas and their associated processes,” conclude the authors.

About the Authors and Models

The authors are:

  • Wei Zhang and Gabriele Villarini from the Department of Hydroscience & Engineering, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
  • Gabriel A. Vecchi from the Department of Geosciences, Princeton University and the Princeton Environmental Institute, of Princeton, NJ
  • James A. Smith from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.

This presentation explains the Noah Model that the authors used to calculate air/ground interactions.

Local Questions Raised by Study

To date, the role of a city in altering rainfall during tropical cyclones has received very little attention. Houston has had the largest urban growth and the fifth-largest population growth in the United States in the period from 2001–2011. Much of that growth is now on the periphery of the city. The two fastest growing parts of the region are Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties.

As the city grows, we need mitigation measures that can offset the impact of that growth. That’s why the meeting of the Montgomery County Commissions on August 27th is so important. They will vote on whether to close a loophole that allows developers to avoid building onsite detention ponds. Closing that loophole is important. It will help protect hundreds of thousands of downstream residents as well as those in Montgomery County.

Also, the new NOAA Atlas-14 (rainfall measurements updated after Harvey) does not consider forward-looking urban growth effects. The precipitation frequency data in NOAA Atlas 14 was determined by a statistical analysis of historical rainfall, a key input for FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) modeling. With all that uncertainty, we need to err on the side of caution in flood planning.

For more about Atlas 14, see this link.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/18/2019

618 Days after Hurricane Harvey