Scientists test system to forecast flash floods along Colorado's front range

Jul 22, 2008
Scientists test system to forecast flash floods along Colorado's front range
Scientists are testing a new, high-tech system that will better forecast flash floods along Colorado's Front Range and beyond. Credit: Colorado State Division of Emergency Management

People living near vulnerable creeks and rivers along Colorado's Front Range may soon get advance notice of potentially deadly floods, thanks to a new forecasting system being tested this summer by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.

Known as the NCAR Front Range Flash Flood Prediction System, it combines detailed atmospheric conditions with information about stream flows to predict floods along specific streams and catchments.

"The goal is to provide improved guidance about the likelihood of a flash flood event many minutes out to an hour or two before the waters start rising," says NCAR scientist David Gochis, one of the developers of the new forecasting system. "We want to increase the lead time of a forecast, while decreasing the uncertainty about whether a flood will occur."

Funding to create the system came from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is NCAR's sponsor, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"This project is an excellent example of using basic research findings to improve forecasts important to saving lives," said Cliff Jacobs, program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

The Front Range, because of its steep topography and intense summer storms, is unusually vulnerable to summertime flash floods. Such floods have claimed the lives of hundreds of people and accounted for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages throughout the region's history.

Flash floods are difficult to predict because they happen suddenly, often the result of heavy cloudbursts that may stall over a particular watershed.

Forecasters can give a few hours' notice that weather conditions might lead to flooding, and radars can detect heavy rain within minutes.

But whether a flood hits a specific river or creek also depends on soil, topographic, and hydrologic conditions that are characteristic to particular watersheds. Thus, emergency managers may not know that a flash flood is imminent until the waters begin to rise.

The goal of the NCAR system is to provide officials at least 30 minutes warning of flash flooding in specific watersheds, and possibly as much as an hour or two.

It is designed to pinpoint whether a particular stream is likely to overflow, as well as forecast the likelihood of flash floods producing events across a larger region.

Scientists will monitor the system's performance each day, tracking potential flood events from Colorado Springs in the south to Fort Collins in the north.

After this summer's test of the system, researchers will evaluate its performance and make improvements as needed.

"This summer is a proof-of-concept test," Gochis says. "If we can show that our system has some reasonable skill in predicting floods, we think officials may become more interested in using it along with their existing suites of tools."

To predict weather events, the system utilizes National Weather Service radar observations of current conditions and short-term computerized weather forecasts. The weather forecasts are generated by NCAR's Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model, which produces highly detailed simulations of the local atmosphere.

The system integrates the weather information with datasets about hydrology and terrain. These datasets incorporate information about land surface conditions, such as terrain slope, soil composition and surface vegetation. They also include information on stream flow and channel conditions.

By combining information about the land and the atmosphere, the system can project whether an intense storm is likely to stall over a specific area of the Front Range and how that may impact the flow of water on the ground.

"This new system is unique in that it provides a detailed forecast of the location and duration of a severe storm, as well as the watershed's likely response to the heavy rain," explains NCAR scientist David Yates.

"Since flash floods are complex and fast-moving events, we need to know about both weather and ground conditions in order to predict them."

Source: National Science Foundation

Explore further: Report: FBI's anthrax investigation was flawed

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Coping with floods—of water and data

Dec 19, 2014

Halloween 2013 brought real terror to an Austin, Texas, neighborhood, when a flash flood killed four residents and damaged roughly 1,200 homes. Following torrential rains, Onion Creek swept over its banks and inundated the ...

Satellite shows return of the Pineapple Express

Dec 12, 2014

The ''Pineapple Express'' happens when warm air and lots of moisture are transported from the Central Pacific, near Hawaii, to the Eastern Pacific Ocean. An animation of satellite imagery from NOAA's GOES-West ...

Satellite time-lapse movie shows California soaker

Dec 03, 2014

A new time-lapse animation of data from NOAA's GOES-West satellite provides a good picture of why the U.S. West Coast continues to experience record rainfall. The new animation shows the movement of storms from Nov. 30 to ...

New satellite movie shows US pre-winter wintry outbreak

Nov 14, 2014

(Phys.org) —Three days of satellite imagery from NOAA's GOES-East satellite were compiled into an animation that showed the progression of the storm system that dropped snow and brought gusty winds to the ...

Recommended for you

Report: FBI's anthrax investigation was flawed

Dec 19, 2014

The FBI used flawed scientific methods to investigate the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 others, federal auditors said Friday in a report sure to fuel skepticism over the FBI's ...

Study reveals mature motorists worse at texting and driving

Dec 18, 2014

A Wayne State University interdisciplinary research team in the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences has made a surprising discovery: older, more mature motorists—who typically are better drivers in ...

Napster co-founder to invest in allergy research

Dec 17, 2014

(AP)—Napster co-founder Sean Parker missed most of his final year in high school and has ended up in the emergency room countless times because of his deadly allergy to nuts, shellfish and other foods.

LA mayor plans 7,000 police body cameras in 2015

Dec 16, 2014

Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a plan Tuesday to equip 7,000 Los Angeles police officers with on-body cameras by next summer, making LA's police department the nation's largest law enforcement agency to move ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.