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Three common types of flood explained

At a glance

  • To plan for floods, you need to understand the type - or types - of flood you may face
  • There are several different types of flood, each one bears a different impact of how it occurs and what damage it causes
  • We explain the three common types of flood and how to identify them

A flood is an overflow of a large amount of water beyond its normal limits, especially over what is normally dry land. To plan for floods, you need to understand the type – or types – of flood you may face. Why? There are several different kinds of flood, and each one bears a different impact in terms of how it occurs, how it is forecast, the damage it causes, and type of protection you need.

Fluvial floods (river floods)

A fluvial, or river flood, occurs when the water level in a river, lake or stream rises and overflows onto the surrounding banks, shores and neighboring land. The water level rise could be due to excessive rain or snowmelt.

The damage from a river flood can be widespread as the overflow affects smaller rivers downstream, which can cause dams and dikes to break and swamp nearby areas..

To determine the probability of river flooding, models consider past precipitation, forecasted precipitation, current river levels, and well as soil and terrain conditions.

The severity of a river flood is determined by the duration and intensity (volume) of rainfall in the catchment area of the river. Other factors include soil water saturation due to previous rainfall, and the terrain surrounding the river system. In flatter areas, floodwater tends to rise more slowly and be shallower, and it often remains for days. In hilly or mountainous areas, floods can occur within minutes after a heavy rain, drain very quickly, and cause damage due to debris flow.

To determine the probability of river flooding, models consider past precipitation, forecasted precipitation, current river levels, and well as soil and terrain conditions.

Pluvial floods (flash floods and surface water)

A pluvial flood occurs when an extreme rainfall event creates a flood independent of an overflowing water body. A common misconception about flood is that you must be located near a body of water to be at risk. Yet pluvial flooding can happen in any location, urban or rural; even in areas with no water bodies in the vicinity. There are two common types of pluvial flooding:

  • Surface water floods occur when an urban drainage system is overwhelmed and water flows out into streets and nearby structures. It occurs gradually, which provides people time to move to safe locations, and the level of water is usually shallow (rarely more than 1 meter deep). It creates no immediate threat to lives but may cause significant economic damage.
  • Flash floods are characterized by an intense, high velocity torrent of water triggered by torrential rain falling within a short amount of time within the vicinity or on nearby elevated terrain. They can also occur via sudden release of water from an upstream levee or a dam. Flash floods are very dangerous and destructive not only because of the force of the water, but also the hurtling debris that is often swept up in the flow.

Coastal flood (storm surge)

Coastal flooding is the inundation of land areas along the coast by seawater. Common causes of coastal flooding are intense windstorm events occurring at the same time as high tide (storm surge), and tsunamis.

Storm surge is created when high winds from a windstorm force water onshore — this is the leading cause of coastal flooding and often the greatest threat associated with a windstorm. The effects increase depending on the tide – windstorms that occur during high tide result in devastating storm surge floods. In this type of flood, water overwhelms low-lying land and often causes devastating loss of life and property.

The severity of a coastal flood is determined by several other factors, including the strength, size, speed, and direction of the windstorm. The onshore and offshore topography also plays an important role. To determine the probability and magnitude of a storm surge, coastal flood models consider this information in addition to data from historical storms that have affected the area.

Image © Getty

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